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1 Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene,
2 in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness.
3 And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins;
4 as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight.
5 ‘Every ravine will be filled, And every mountain and hill will be brought low; The crooked will become straight, And the rough roads smooth;
6 And all flesh will see the salvation of God.’ ”
7 So he began saying to the crowds who were going out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
8 “Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham.
9 “Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
3:1-6 In verses 1-6, Luke directs his readers to focus on the life and ministry of John the Baptist. Why is that important? Because God cares enough for His people to prepare them for the One who will become the consolation of Israel. But there is a catch. Only those who will respond to John’s message will be prepared the receive the Lamb of God when He appears. Why? Because John’s message was one of repentance. This message will prepare God’s people for the Messiah whose first coming will be as a sacrifice for sin. In God’s great plan, personal sin must be dealt with before one can enjoy God’s eternal blessings.
3:1 One might glance over verse 1 as just helpful historical detail (which it is), but there is so much more to it than that. Verse 1 is snapshot of what’s wrong with the world. All those named are ruthless and godless leaders, driven by power, greed, ambition, lust, adultery and even incest. This is in stark contrast to the righteousness that John the Baptist preaches, and to the love, compassion, mercy and holiness that Jesus will teach. Verse 1 represents a stark contrast to godliness. Note later that none of those named seek out John when he is ministering in the wilderness, and none will be followers of Jesus.
3:2 Annas and Caiaphas, dual high priests at the time, can be counted among those in verse 1. Annas was a sort of High Priest emeritus, and Caiaphas was his son-in-law in the process of assuming Annas’s authority and responsibility. The High Priest was in charge of temple activities, as well as the head of what was known as the Sanhedrin, the ruling religious body of Israel’s theocratic state. Annas and Caiaphas were political pawns to Herod and the occupying Roman government; all three parties hated each other and were constantly at odds. Because Annas and Caiaphas were of God’s chosen race, true Jews (as opposed to Herod, who was not a Jew but an Edomite), their sin of failing to recognize the Messiah, and in fact rejecting Him, are considered more heinous. They, too, failed to visit John in the wilderness, and in regard to Jesus, they will be instrumental in His death. A message about repentance for personal sin is never welcomed.
3:3 John the Baptist is considered the last of the Old Testament prophets. John’s message was clear: all men need to repent and have their sins forgiven. The bad news is there is no one who doesn’t sin; the good news—the gospel—is that anyone can be forgiven if there is true repentance. Luke makes it clear from the very beginning that without the issue of personal sin being dealt with God’s way, there can be no real enjoyment of God’s blessings, and therefore no real experience of God’s love and grace.
3:4 Luke presents the big picture of John’s role in Jesus’ ministry, although at the time, John’s followers probably did not grasp it. John was sent by God to announce that His Son was coming. If a person wouldn’t repent with John’s call, how would a person ever repent with Jesus’ call? John was announcing, therefore, that to really accept Jesus, one must be willing to address personal sin. Most people in John’s day wanted the blessings of the Messiah, but didn’t want to be bothered with the issue of personal sin. That same problem exists today, even in the American evangelical church.
3:5-6 John is quoting Isaiah 40:4-6. All four gospels record this passage when referring to John the Baptist. John himself is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” and announcing the coming king. This passage was well known by the Jews to be a messianic prophecy; that is, an Old Testament prophecy declaring the arrival of the long-awaited-for Messiah. Isaiah’s prophecy pictures a royal visit. As was customary in ancient times, the receiving monarch would see that the “way” was made smooth. This was done by filling in ravines and gullies with dirt, smoothing out the roads, and leveling “hills” to make the journey as comfortable as possible for the arriving monarch—a sign of intense respect. John quotes these verses from Isaiah as a way of warning his listeners to repent and turn away from sin, for the King, the Messiah, is coming. They are to “make ready the way of the Lord” by turning away from unrighteousness and “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (v. 8). Eventually, “all flesh” will see the Messiah, whether they choose to acknowledge Him or not. John’s warning is to be ready to receive Him by dealing with personal sin.
3:7 The ritual of baptism was begun sometime after the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon. By Jesus’ day, the ritual was performed by pouring water over the head of the repenter using a gourd. John lived in the wilderness near the Jordan River, and therefore, the river was a convenient place to perform baptism. (The religious authorities will confront John on his qualifications for performing baptism, as he is neither a Pharisee nor a scribe [John 1:24-25].) The pouring of water over the head of the repenter symbolized a spiritual cleansing; that is, the washing away of sin and unrighteousness, and was accompanied by confession. In verse 16, John will state that the coming Messiah will baptize, not with water, but with “the Holy Spirit and fire.” This prophecy is fulfilled in Acts 2:1-4.
John’s words are not what we would call “politically correct” or “seeker sensitive.” To call those who come to him a “brood of vipers” is to call them evil, as “vipers” are poisonous snakes and almost always associated with evil, sin and death in Hebrew culture. Therefore, John likens people who are living in sin to descendants of Satan, the serpent in Genesis. “Who warned you…” is a bit rhetorical, for certainly Satan would not have warned them. It was God through the Holy Spirit who warned them. Thus, the next verse starts with the word “Therefore” referring to what they must now do to avoid the wrath—judgment—that will surely come upon all unrighteousness.
3:8 What they must “do” is “bear fruits in keeping with repentance….” Note that John does not say, “Bear fruit so that you may be forgiven” or that bearing fruit is their repentance. Good works does nothing to help a person receive forgiveness. Good works—fruit—should be the result of having been forgiven. We do good works because we are forgiven, not in order to earn God’s forgiveness. And, John clearly states that being Jewish does not automatically count for forgiveness or protect a Jew from God’s wrath and judgment. The same principle is true today. Just because someone calls himself a Christian, or claim to be born-again or evangelical, doesn’t automatically protect that person from earthly judgment by God. God must see that a person’s repentance is real, and He observes this by our change in behavior toward others as a result of repentance. (See verses 10-14 below.)
3:9 John prophetically announces that God is already in the process of changing His plan in regard to the Jews, and the whole system of the Old Testament laws, tithes, works and sacrifices is about to change. This may be one reason John was so hated by the religious leaders who depended on the tithes and sacrifices of the people to maintain their comfortable lifestyle.
10 And the crowds were questioning him, saying, “Then what shall we do?”
11 And he would answer and say to them, “The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise.”
12 And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?”
13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.”
14 Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.”
3:10-14 Look carefully at these verses and you will see one of the most important messages in the New Testament. Do you see it? The message lies in John’s three responses to the question, “What shall we do?” That is, “Okay, now that we’ve repented and been baptized, what’s the next step? What are the fruits we must bear in keeping with repentance?” John’s answer to their question says nothing about keeping the Sabbath, offering a lamb at the temple, keeping the laws of cleanliness and remaining undefiled, and nothing about fasting, prayer or memorizing the Torah. John’s answers all have one common theme: good fruit is defined as how one treats his neighbor. This theme will be seen throughout the gospels but will not be clearly articulated until after Pentecost. James will be the first to state the theme in his letter: “…love your neighbor as yourself” (2:8). All of John’s answers have loving one’s neighbor as the common theme. This theme has been present in the Old Testament prophets but does not become the basis for all good works until the New Testament. Therefore, even before Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, the Bible clearly teaches that living out one’s repentance is demonstrated by how one treats one’s neighbor. For the born-again Christian, the most important test of a transformed life, therefore, is not how many verses one memorizes or how often one goes to church or how many hours one spends in prayer or how much theology one knows. The true test is in how a Christian treats others. This principle is true whether one is a great sinner like a tax collector, a new believer like the soldier, or someone who is just a part of the crowd.
15 Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he was the Christ,
16 John answered and said to them all, “As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
17 “His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
3:15-17 All who are oppressed, as were the Jews under the Romans, look for a deliverer, one who will overpower the evil forces and raise up the righteous. Many of John’s Jewish followers wondered if John himself was that deliverer, the Messiah. But John clearly states that he is not. Ironically, though, through John, all those who repented and had their sins forgiven were delivered!
3:16 Until the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, only special people in the Old Testament, like kings and prophets, had the anointing of the Holy Spirit (e.g., Ex. 35:31; 1 Sam. 11:6; Ezek. 2:2). However, as the prophet Joel foretold, there would come a time when the Holy Spirit would be poured out on all flesh. But the coming of the Holy Spirit will also bring fire, that is, judgment, for those who reject the Holy Spirit.
Note, too, that being baptized with the Holy Spirit is not the same as being “filled with the Spirit.” Being baptized with the Holy Spirit means to receive the Holy Spirit, which occurs when one receives Jesus Christ as personal Savior. (See John 1:33; Acts 1:5, 2:38; Rom. 6:3.)
3:17 Jesus Himself will be the judge, and John prophesies that judgment will begin even with Jesus’ earthly ministry, for there will be those who receive Him and His message (wheat) and those who reject Him (the chaff).
18 So with many other exhortations he preached the gospel to the people.
19 But when Herod the tetrarch was reprimanded by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the wicked things which Herod had done,
20 Herod also added this to them all: he locked John up in prison.
21 Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized, and while He was praying, heaven was opened,
22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.”
3:18 The use of the word “gospel” here is interesting. We Christians believe that the gospel is the good news that Jesus died for our sins. Yet Luke uses the word here during John’s ministry. In this context, the gospel refers to John’s preaching that a person’s sins can be forgiven through repentance, and that their reward, the Messiah, is about to appear.
3:19-20 There are four Herods named in the gospels. The first was Herod the Great who ruled when Jesus was born. The Herod named here is Herod Antipas, one of seven sons of Herod the Great. Herod Antipas had a half-brother named Philip (Herod Philip I, but not the same Philip mentioned in 3:1). Philip was married to an ambitious, scheming woman by the name of Herodias, who was actually Philip’s niece. However, Herod Antipas and Herodias had an affair, and Herodias eventually left Philip and married her uncle Herod. This affair was not only sordid but, according to Jewish law, incestuous (Lev. 18:16). Sometime in his ministry, John confronted Herod with this particularly hideous sin, and Herod eventually imprisoned John at the behest of Herodias’s daughter. (The details of John’s imprisonment and death can be found in Matthew 14:1-12.)
The other two Herods appear in the book of Acts (12:18-23; 25:23 – 26:32).
There is an obvious contrast here between the righteousness of John and the unrighteousness of Herod and Herodias.
One other note: the Herods were not Jewish—they were Edomites. The Edomites were descendants of Esau, the firstborn son of Isaac who sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew (Gen. 25:27-34). Esau eventually moved away from Isaac and began the nation of Edom, a mountainous, barren country southeast of the Promised Land. Since the Exodus, the descendants of Jacob (Israel, therefore Israelites) and the descendants of Esau (Edomites) became perpetual enemies. Herod the Great, an Edomite, had been seated as ruler over the Jews by Caesar because Herod was very powerful, very unsympathetic toward the Jews, and particularly vicious. The entire temple guard was made up of loyal Edomites. Herod would tolerate no uprising from the Jews, lest he be demoted by Rome. So, not only did the Jews hate the fact that an Edomite had been placed as a ruler over them, but Herod was buddies with Caesar whom they also hated.
3:21 On this particular day, Jesus was perhaps the last in line to be baptized, and His appearance may have been a surprise to John. John knew Jesus, as they were cousins, and John had obviously heard the extraordinary details of His birth. It is possible that John and Jesus spent many hours together as children, playing as children do, but at the same time discussing the things of the kingdom of God. John obviously knew that Jesus was special and destined for greatest in the kingdom of God, but had yet to believe that his cousin would actually be the Messiah. Therefore, John may not have anticipated that Jesus needed baptizing, as we read in other gospel writers. Nevertheless, John follows Jesus’ instruction and, with a gourd, pours water over Jesus’ head. While Jesus was praying, John observes the Holy Spirit come upon Him. This does not mean that Jesus became the Christ at His baptism, as some liberal scholars propose. It means that Jesus is now anointed with power by the Holy Spirit to begin His ministry. Most likely, Jesus didn’t begin His ministry until his legal father Joseph had died, as there is no mention of Joseph in the gospels apart from the birth narratives.
It is often asked, “If Jesus was without sin, why did He get baptized?” One must remember that it is not baptism per se that takes away sin. Baptism is a public statement of a desire to live righteously, whether or not one has sinned. (Of course, all mankind has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God [Rom. 3:23].) Therefore, Jesus has Himself baptized by John for at least three reasons: first, to validate John and his ministry of the need for repentance in one’s relationship to God; second, to validate and fulfill the law in regards to its demand for righteousness; and third, to identify with all mankind who are separated from God by sin. By identifying with mankind, Jesus will, on the cross, become the sacrificial lamb for the sin for all mankind, and thus take away the sins of the world (John 1:29).
3:22 Apparently, only John and Jesus heard the Father speak. An important observation of this verse is that all three Persons of the Trinity are present: God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Note that God refers to Jesus as “My beloved Son.” The power and importance of this statement cannot be overemphasized. The Father did not say, “My incarnated Son,” “My Son who teaches truth,” or “My Son who will die for mankind’s sin.” God says, “My beloved Son.” This statement emphasizes the relationship between the Father and the Son: it is a relationship of pure divine love, eternal intimacy, and holy oneness. The Godhead is inseparable in its harmony, perfection and will. The Trinity, therefore, is described as “One God, three Persons.” The relationship between the Father and the Son is one of perfect unity. Throughout His ministry, therefore, Jesus will only refer to God as “My Father.” This is extremely significant in terms of the love message found throughout the gospels. There is an intimate relationship between the Father and the Son that is characterized primarily by love. The Apostle John will emphasize this relationship in his gospel. It is this relationship of love that transcends all human description, and can only be imagined by mortal man because it is eternal and infinite. Therefore, every joy Jesus experienced during His earthly ministry was experienced by the Father. Every taunt, every confrontation His skeptics, every hostile encounter with the Pharisees, and every rejection by the scribes was experienced by the Father as well. When Jesus is ridiculed and scorned at His trial by the Sanhedrin, spit upon and scourged to the edge of death by Roman soldiers, nailed mercilessly to a cross and hung in shame like a common criminal, His Father not only watched, but experienced. At this point in human history, God the Father would have had every justification for completely wiping all mankind off the face of the earth. Yet He didn’t. Instead, the Father listened to the plea of His beloved Son, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And out of love, from that moment on, God the Father so honored His Son’s request by offering forgiveness of sin to all who would accept Jesus as His beloved Son.
23 When He began His ministry, Jesus Himself was about thirty years of age, being, as was supposed, the son of Joseph, the son of Eli,
24 the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph,
25 the son of Mattathias, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Hesli, the son of Naggai,
26 the son of Maath, the son of Mattathias, the son of Semein, the son of Josech, the son of Joda,
27 the son of Joanan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, the son of Neri,
28 the son of Melchi, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmadam, the son of Er,
29 the son of Joshua, the son of Eliezer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi,
30 the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonam, the son of Eliakim,
31 the son of Melea, the son of Menna, the son of Mattatha, the son of Nathan, the son of David,
32 the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz, the son of Salmon, the son of Nahshon,
33 the son of Amminadab, the son of Admin, the son of Ram, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah,
34 the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor,
35 the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Heber, the son of Shelah,
36 the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech,
37 the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalaleel, the son of Cainan,
38 the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.
3:23 That Jesus began His ministry after His baptism is clear in verse 23. Therefore, the temptation that will follow in the next chapter is actually a part of His ministry; that is, to resist the power and ploys of Satan. Note, too, that Luke clearly states Joseph was not Jesus’ natural father. Jesus’ real father has been named in the previous verse.
3:23-38 The genealogy that Luke traces probably represents Jesus’ physical genealogy through His mother’s ancestors. There are a number of significant points about Luke’s genealogy.
First, it represents the “seed line” leading to the Messiah; that is, the physical line descending from Adam through David, as opposed to Matthew’s genealogy, which is the legal—or royal—line descending from David. (This might explain the different names of Joseph’s father in the two genealogies.) This seed line, therefore, is most likely the genetic, physical line that descends all the way from Adam to Jesus, and may actually be Mary’s genealogy. Only by God’s loving intervention and providence did this seed line survive throughout the history of the Jews. Satan himself attempted to destroy God’s plan for the Messiah by having Cain kill Abel. Abel was the second born to Adam, but was of the seed line because “By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain” (Heb. 11:4), and because “(Cain’s) deeds were evil, but (Abel’s) were righteous” (1 John 3:12). Also, the nation of Israel itself constantly put the seed line at risk throughout its history by internal corruption and idolatry. Only God’s love persisted against the attacks of Satan and the self-destructive behaviors of the Israelites. God, therefore, always preserved a remnant that would remain faithful to Him. It was therefore through God’s love and providential care that the seed line was preserved.
Second, the genealogy fulfills the prophecies that the Messiah would be a descendant of David. Mary, therefore, was a direct descendant of David through David’s son Nathan (v. 31). (In Matthew’s genealogy, Solomon is named as the son of David through whom the seed line passed, thus making Joseph the legal, or royal, descendant of David [Matt. 1:6].) Against all odds, therefore, including the destruction of Jerusalem in 386 BC, and the subsequent exile of the Jews to Babylon, God’s hand preserved the seed line.
Third, Luke in particular would be the one to trace the seed line all the way back to Adam (before there was a Jewish nation). Matthew’s genealogy, on the other hand, goes back only to Abraham, the father of the Israelites. This would be Luke’s way of indicating that the Messiah came for all mankind, including the Gentiles.
Fourth, few if any of those listed in the genealogy had any idea that they would play such an important role in the line that would produce the Savior of the world. They might have known they were descendants of David, but there were many other descendants of David that were never part of the seed line.
Questions for Your Personal or Group Reflection