John the Baptist in Luke

by Ed Gallagher

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist, 1566, Wikimedia Commons

I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.  

John 1:31; see verses 26–27

Israel’s problem was its sin, and the people knew it. This had all been recorded in their Scriptures centuries earlier. Before the entrance into the Promised Land, Moses had warned the Israelites that failure to keep God’s Torah would result in devastating consequences (Deut 28:15–68), including loss of that Promised Land (vv. 64–68). He had told them that if they acted like the previous inhabitants of the land, then the land itself would vomit them out (Lev 18:24–30; 20:22–24). The people did not keep the Torah, they did act like the Canaanites, and the land did vomit them out, into Babylonian exile (2 Kings 25). But God had also promised that even exile would not be the end of his people. 

When all these things have happened to you, the blessings and the curses that I have set before you, if you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, 2and return to the LORD your God, and you and your children obey him with all your heart and with all your soul, just as I am commanding you today, 3then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the LORD your God has scattered you. 4Even if you are exiled to the ends of the world, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there he will bring you back. 5The LORD your God will bring you into the land that your ancestors possessed, and you will possess it; he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors.

Deuteronomy 30:1–5

This promise, too, God had kept, sort of. They had indeed returned from exile, when God used the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, to release the Jews from their Babylonian captivity (Ezra 1:1–4) and allow them to return under Zerubbabel (Ezra 1–6) and later Ezra (Ezra 7) and Nehemiah. They were back in the land, to be sure, but it wasn’t exactly like the old days. They were not anywhere close to being “more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors” (Deut 30:5), as God had promised. They were, in fact, still subject to a foreign overlord. There was no descendant of David on the throne, no divinely appointed king. In some ways they were still slaves even in their own land, as Nehemiah recognized.

Here we are, slaves to this day—slaves in the land that you gave to our ancestors to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts.

Nehemiah 9:36; cf. Ezra 9:9

The exile was over, but it wasn’t really over. Israel was still enduring the consequences of its sin. 

But now there is a prophet in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. This prophet is calling on people to repent and announcing the imminent arrival of Another One, who will execute God’s wrath against the wicked and bring deliverance for God’s people. The suffering of God’s people will soon end. This prophet is preparing the way of the Lord. 

The Expectation of Elijah 

The apocryphal book of Ben Sira, written in the early second century BC (about 200 years before John appeared in the desert), recalled the prophetic career of Elijah in these terms. 

Then Elijah arose, a prophet like fire,

and his word burned like a torch.

2He brought a famine upon them,

and by his zeal he made them few in number.

3By the word of the Lord he shut up the heavens,

and also three times brought down fire.

4How glorious you were, Elijah, in your wondrous deeds!

Whose glory is equal to yours?

5You raised a corpse from death

and from Hades, by the word of the Most High.

6You sent kings down to destruction,

and famous men, from their sickbeds.

7You heard rebuke at Sinai

and judgments of vengeance at Horeb.

8You anointed kings to inflict retribution,

and prophets to succeed you.

9You were taken up by a whirlwind of fire,

in a chariot with horses of fire.

10At the appointed time, it is written, you are destined

to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury,

to turn the hearts of parents to their children,

and to restore the tribes of Jacob.

11Happy are those who saw you

and were adorned with your love! For we also shall surely live.

Sirach 48:1–11

The crucial verse 10 is a little different in the Greek and the Hebrew (the latter reflected above according to the NRSV). The version above shows that at least some Jews were anticipating the return of Elijah, who would usher in some sort of religious reform in Israel. The disciples of Jesus were also anticipating the arrival of Elijah (Mark 9:11; Matt 17:10). The crowds thought Jesus might be Elijah (Matt 16:14; Mark 6:15; 8:28; Luke 9:8, 19). That expectation is based on Malachi, which ends with these words. 

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. 6He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.

Malachi 4:5–6

Each of the Gospels mentions this expectation of Elijah and connects it in some way with John the Baptist. The most explicit are Matthew (11:4; 17:10–12) and Mark (9:11–13), while Luke is much more subtle. John’s connection to Elijah is mentioned only in the angelic birth announcement.

With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. 

Luke 1:17

The point of the prophecy is not that Elijah would literally show up—though, in a way, he did at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:30)—but that a later prophet would embody “the spirit and power of Elijah,” as Gabriel puts it. The people in the first century seem to have understood this significance since they were wondering whether Jesus was Elijah or whether John might be (cf. John 1:21). John, like Elijah, was a rough looking man (though Luke does not describe his appearance as Matthew 3:4 and Mark 1:6 do) who lived in the desert and called the people to repentance. Elijah’s appearance in the form of John the Baptist meant that “the great and terrible day of the LORD” was nigh. 

Preparing a People 

Aside from the Elijah prophecy, two other Old Testament prophecies are connected with John in Luke’s Gospel (and the other Synoptic Gospels). 

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.

Malachi 3:1; cf. Luke 7:27

A voice cries out:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,

make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

4Every valley shall be lifted up,

and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level,

and the rough places a plain.

5Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,

and all people shall see it together,

for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Isaiah 40:3–5; cf. Luke 3:4–6

Israel anticipated the coming of the Lord to set things right. He would establish his kingdom and bring prosperity to his people, but before this could happen, as we’ve seen, the people’s sin needed to be removed. There needed to be preparation for the coming of the Lord. And that meant repentance. 

John’s message was urgent, because he was the forerunner for the Lord. He came announcing the imminent appearance of One much greater than himself. Whereas John used water for baptism, this Coming One would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (3:16). The cleansing symbolized by water baptism would be perfected (fulfilled) by the baptism of the Coming One. The next verse indicates that the Coming One would result in punishment for the wicked and blessing for the righteous, and that (I think) is also what the baptism with Holy Spirit and fire indicates. It would work like a refiner’s fire, purifying the righteous and destroying the wicked. John’s preaching is basically hellfire and damnation.

Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 

Luke 3:9

This Coming One would, of course, not be fooled by any false claims of righteousness, whether those false claims were based on ancestry (3:8) or pretended repentance. The idea that descent from Abraham was irrelevant was shocking, but not completely unanticipated in the Old Testament. After all, the Old Testament contains those stories of non-Israelites joining with Israel and being considered a part of God’s people, whether we’re talking about Rahab (Josh 2; 6:22–25) or Ruth or, to a lesser extent, Naaman (2 Kings 5). Moreover, there were plenty of Israelites who were punished for their sin despite their descent from Abraham: Achan is a good example (Josh 7), but so is the entire nation, since they all suffered exile. Descent from righteous Abraham is no guarantee of God’s favor. 

What was needed was action. Repentance is not just about being sorry about how you’ve been living, it’s about action—doing something different. This theme is highlighted in the material shared by Matthew and Luke (not in Mark), but Luke emphasizes it even more than Matthew, because he includes a passage with specific examples. 

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Luke 3:10–14

This is (I guess) the first example of a prominent theme in Luke’s Gospel—repentance. Think about the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:18–19) or Zaccheus (Luke 19:1–10) or the dire warning, stated twice, “unless you repent, you will all perish” (13:3, 5). This is the Gospel that specifies that it was “to repentance” that Jesus came to call sinners and not the righteous (Luek 5:32; cf. Mark 2:17; Matt 9:13). 

But it’s not like the call to repentance was anything new. The prophets had always called on God’s people to repent. 

Seek the LORD while he may be found,

call upon him while he is near;

7let the wicked forsake their way,

and the unrighteous their thoughts;

let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them,

and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

Isaiah 55:6–7

Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin.

Ezekiel 18:30

And often the people did not listen to the call for repentance. 

And though the LORD persistently sent you all his servants the prophets, you have neither listened nor inclined your ears to hear 5when they said, “Turn now, everyone of you, from your evil way and wicked doings, and you will remain upon the land that the LORD has given to you and your ancestors from of old and forever; 6do not go after other gods to serve and worship them, and do not provoke me to anger with the work of your hands. Then I will do you no harm.” 7Yet you did not listen to me, says the LORD, and so you have provoked me to anger with the work of your hands to your own harm.

Jeremiah 25:4–7

So John stands in a tradition as another prophet calling the people to repent. If there is anything that sets John apart, it is the urgency with which he issues his call to repentance. Things are about to change. God is about to keep his promises, which will spell doom for some people and blessing for others. 

The fruit of repentance that John advises his audience to produce all have to do with treatment of other people. Those who have some worldly goods should share with those who lack. Tax collectors, who might easily abuse their status as Rome’s appointee, should refrain from lining their own pockets by mistreating others. Soldiers, who might easily abuse their power, should take care to treat others with respect. 

Incidentally, what does it say that tax collectors and soldiers were submitting to John’s baptism? I think it means at least two things.

  1. They recognized their own sin. Even though the types of things they did were completely normal, they realized that it was wrong.
  2. They were scared. John preached hellfire and damnation, and they believed him.

They are not the most obvious candidates for religion, but they knew their need for repentance and were willing to take the hard steps toward changing their lives. While the religious leaders were promoting the status quo, the tax collectors were acknowledging the justice God (7:29–30). 

Forgiveness of Sins 

At John’s birth, his father spoke this prophecy. 

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

77to give knowledge of salvation to his people

by the forgiveness of their sins.

78By the tender mercy of our God,

the dawn from on high will break upon us,

79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Luke 1:76–79

The people were sinful, and the Lord was coming. The people needed to be prepared for the coming of the Lord, and that meant repentance, and repentance resulted in the forgiveness of sins. That was John’s mission, “to give knowledge of salvation to his people, by the forgiveness of their sins.” 

John preached a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3), a phrase used only of John’s baptism. The baptism was a definite action symbolizing the changed life (repentance) and resulting in forgiveness of sins. It was similar to Christian baptism in that the main point is the “pledge of a good conscience toward God,” as Peter puts it (1 Peter 3:21). 

God had promised to establish a new covenant with his people (Jer 31:31–34), as a part of which God would forgive his people’s iniquity and remember their sin no more (v. 34). John’s ministry was the sign that all this was about to take place. The wait was over. The Lord was coming. 

Discussion Questions 

As you read through the account of John’s preaching in Luke 3:1–20, what are the main themes that you notice? 

At Luke 3:18, Luke describes John’s preaching with a word related to “gospel” or “good news,” as some translations make clear. What about John’s preaching seems like “good news” to you? 

What about his preaching could seem like the opposite of “good news”? 

Jesus describes John’s ministry at Luke 7:18–35. What does Jesus say about John? 

Luke is the single Gospel that narrates John’s birth. How does the angelic announcement to Zechariah (Luke 1:5–25) describe John’s purpose and mission? 

How does John’s preaching (Luke 3:1–20) fulfill this purpose?  

%d bloggers like this: