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In the Wilderness: Luke 3

In Summary: Luke moves the story back to John the Baptist in this chapter, working through his preaching up to his arrest by Herod the Tetrarch. This chapter shows Luke’s ongoing historical work by providing background on the life of Jesus more than details about His life. The chapter mentions Jesus by name in two verses, refers to Him clearly in about three more, and spends the rest describing surrounding situations.

The opening section of the chapter deals with John the Baptist’s preaching. It is worth noting that Luke does not refer to him, at this point, as John “the Baptist.” He is simply John. Matthew and Mark use the descriptive term of “the Baptist,” perhaps to differentiate this one from the Apostle John. Returning to Luke, notice the description of John in Luke 3:2. “The word of God came to John.” Now, take a quick gander at any of these: Jeremiah 1:2, Ezekiel 1:3, Hosea 1:1, Jonah 1:1, Malachi 1:1, Zephaniah 1:1, 1 Kings 12:22.

What do we see? “The word of God” or “The word of YHWH” comes to someone—and that person is a prophet. Luke is identifying John with the prophets of the Old Testament here, and we see in John’s preaching that he mirrors the prophets. The prophets came on the scene, typically, to announce major movements of God, proclaim God’s judgments, or anoint new kings—especially kings that were regime changes. Some prophets did more of these than others, but the prophets generally fit those categories.

John’s ministry can be summed up in the same terms. First, he announces the major movement of God: the Incarnation. Luke 3:4-6 quotes from Isaiah (and Malachi) regarding the coming of the Messiah. There is something here about how prophets never contradict each other when speaking the Word of God, but we’ll leave it be. Second, John calls out the sins of the people. It’s a two stage process where he first expresses judgment to come, and then provides a clear pathway to live in response and repentance. Finally, he anoints the new King. Rather than a simple oil-on-the-head process, though, he baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River. Take a look back at Leviticus 8:2 and Psalm 133:2 and see how Aaron was anointed with an excess as high priest, and then see the pouring of oil on the kings. Jesus, though, is baptized in water…

Because He does not need anointing as King, for He came already as King, and the title Messiah means quite literally “Anointed One.” It is who He is, not who He became. John’s action pictures this for the people, not accomplishes for Jesus.

In Focus: The focus I want to put on the passage is the pairing of Luke 4:2-3 and Luke 4:18. Notice how John has “the word of God” wherein he preaches repentance and obedience, and then Luke summarizes this as “the gospel” in the latter verse. Even in John’s preaching, we should note the inseparable nature of these items: repentance, obedience, the righteousness of Christ, and the gospel. Any alleged gospel that does not both proclaim the sinfulness of man and our need for repentance and the holiness and grace of God who came for us is a deficient gospel.

In Practice
: The hard part of these posts for me is always this section: how do we make understanding this concept practical? What do we do about it? What if I give principles that some folks don’t grasp?

And what if my attempts to give practical ideas lead some to legalism and not grace?

We’ll start there, then:

First, legalism is not the Gospel. Don’t live like it is. Legalism would take only the preaching of John about behavior and make that the focus of life. Are you entirely focused on dos and don’ts? Let that go, it is not the Gospel to not do a list. And if you are preaching it, or your preacher is preaching it, then it needs to stop. Preachers, stop it, and church members? You have a responsibility to be part of a Gospel preaching church, not a legalism preaching church. Get out if it can’t be made right.

Second, responsibilities are part of obeying the Gospel. Don’t ignore them. John preached that there were things to do for those who acknowledged the coming King. We need to see this as well: the forgiveness of God is not a free pass to chaos. Rather, we bear responsibilities to each other in the community of the King.

Third, the focus goes on the Messiah. Don’t put it elsewhere. John never makes it about himself. It is either about how the people need to respond to God or about God Himself. It’s never about John. How much of our life is that way?

In Nerdiness: Luke’s an historian, so there is so much nerd to do here. First, we get another time reference in the first few verses. There has been criticism and clarification about the names and titles, and while some doubted that Luke accurately portrayed the politicians of the time, generally it’s seen that he was not wrong. How he knew about Lysanias way out in West Texas is still up for debate. (Abilene? Thank you, tip your waitresses…)

Second, we hang a major chronology on one verse here: Luke 4:23. Jesus was “about thirty years of age” at the outset of His ministry. That word is used in Greek for the same thing in English: approximation of numbers. Some folks get remarkably worked up about exactly how old Jesus was, bodily, but this is all we have. Which means that the only way to accurately date events is through the referents like Luke uses about who is king, tetrarch, etc…

Third, the genealogy. Let’s get this out of the way: there are differences in Luke and Matthew regarding the family line of Jesus. The simplest explanation given is that one traces Mary and one Joseph, but there are some who doubt that conclusion. Another one is that Matthew is tracing a legal, kingship line and Luke the biological. I am unwilling to stake out a claim beyond this: somehow, if Scripture is inspired and error-free, both are right. I believe the front half of that statement.


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