Thought for the day
The feats of engineering hinted at in the citations from Isaiah may seem physically daunting but are even more of a challenge on the intended spiritual level. The highway is for our God—and we could ask what in me impedes his way, how do I block the arrival of the Lord in my life? More positively, I could ask myself what do I do so that the Gospel may come alive in my life? With such cooperation from me, the Lord can and will bring to completion what he has begun.
O God, you search me and you know me. Help me to know myself better; help me acknowledge and set aside the blocks to your coming. You have indeed begun a good work in me and, in spite of my hesitations and resistance, I too want it to be brought to completion under your graceful care. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Proclamation of John the Baptist
Luke 3:1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
John the Baptist is the quintessential Advent figure in the Christian tradition, preparing us even today for the arrival of Jesus. This gospel passage (together with next Sunday’s) provides us with his basic teaching. The Isaiah citation marks John out as someone who prepares for someone else. John was immensely significant—to an uncomfortable degree it would seem—for early Christianity. (His followers continue to exist today the Mandaeans.) Jesus had been a disciple of John and, as such, had accepted his baptism. Jesus’ own ministry started from the moment his mentor could no longer function. Finally, Jesus’ initial proclamation resembled that of John himself. In other words, John the Baptist was essential for the Jesus story and for that very reason each Gospel needed to locate him as somehow preparatory or secondary. Mark’s discovery and use of Isaiah 40 (followed by Matthew 3:3; Luke 3:4 and even John 1:23) was a stroke of genius.
Kind of writing
There is a literary introduction to Luke’s Gospel in 1:1-4. This is followed by the birth stories, Luke 1-2. Finally, the actual story of the ministry of Jesus begins with this quite formal, second, introduction. Later summaries in Acts start with the ministry of John the Baptist.
The first verse sounds very much like the opening of an Old Testament book, linking John the Baptist with the prophetic tradition (Jer 1:1; Hos 1:1; Amos 1:1). Three different kinds of information are given here: (i) the setting in the wide political and religious world—3:1-2a; (ii) the presentation of John as a prophet— 3:2b-3; (iii) a proof text from the Hebrew Bible, locating John as a figure of fulfilment—3:4-6.
At the same time, this rather grand opening echoes Hellenistic biographies.
Old Testament background
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every 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. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isa 40:3–5)
In using this quotation, Luke has made telling modifications to his source Mark. He leaves out the citation from Mal 3:1, relocating it to 7:27. He expands the citation to include Is 40:4-5 in order to bring out the universal nature of the Gospel. He omits the resemblance between John and Elijah, because, in this Gospel, it is Jesus who is the Elijah-type figure. Finally, the reader will notice the difference in punctuation between the original Isaiah and the use in Luke (and Mark):
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” (Isaiah)
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” (Luke)
Two other texts are cited or echoed in the last line of the citation:
The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. (Isa 52:10)
“It shall be that whoever remains after all that I have foretold to you shall be saved and shall see my salvation and the end of my world.” (2 Esd 6:25)
New Testament foreground
Disciples of John the Baptist continued right up the end of the first century, and beyond, as we can see from the Acts of the Apostles:
He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. (Acts 18:25)
Then he said, “Into what then were you baptised?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptised with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” (Acts 19:3–4)
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” (Rom 1:16–17)
For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! (2 Cor 6:2)
Verse 1 Tiberius reigned from ad 14-37 and the fifteenth year would, in principle, be ad 28-29. This is the clearest dating of the ministry of John and therefore of that of Jesus, as far as it goes. Things are not quite as crisp as that because Tiberias had three years co-regency before the death of Augustus and, in any case, different calendars were in use (Julian, Jewish, Syrian-Macedonian, and Egyptian).
A complicating factor is the fact that the first three Gospels portray a ministry of one year while John’s gospel has a three-year ministry. John’s time span is much more plausible. Pilate was prefect of Judea from ad 26 to 36.
Tetrarch meant a ruler of one fourth of a region, reflecting the division of the territory of Herod the Great after his death. Herod Antipas ruled in Galilee (4 bc - ad 39) and his brother Philip was Tetrach of Ituraea and Trachonitis (4 bc - ad 34). Nothing whatsoever is known of Lysanias who ruled in Abilene, north of Galilee, in the anti-Lebanon mountain range. Why Luke would mention Lysanias at all is an enigma to scholars.
Verse 2 Annas served as high priest from ad 6 to 15, and was succeeded by his son-in-law, Caiaphas, who served from ad 18 to 36. Technically, there was only one high priest at any one time, but people regarded Annas as still high priest even if “emeritus.”
Finally, the important expression is heard: “the word of God came to X”, used with arresting frequency to introduce a man of God in the Old Testament (110 times in all, with Jeremiah as most representative—Jer 1:2, 4, 11, 13; 2:1; 13:3, 8; 16:1; 18:5; 24:4; 28:12; 29:30; 32:6, 26; 33:1, 19, 23; 34:12; 35:12; 36:27; 37:6; 39:15; 42:7; 43:8). The evocation of Old Testament models is very effective. The wilderness is both literal and symbolic. As symbol, it recalls the place of Israel’s formation as God’s covenant people.
Verse 3 Four key terms are used: proclaiming, baptism, conversion (metanoia) and forgiveness. “Proclaiming” means literally heralding (hence our word kerygma). The baptism of John was a prophetic gesture, involving a once-off immersion, to be distinguished from the later baptism of Christian tradition.
As usual, “repentance” is not adequate here because it denotes only regret for the past whereas metanoia points to a turning around, so as to get a radically new view and direction forwards. In part, the turning around involves a change of behaviour, in response to forgiveness. Metanoia (as a verb) recurs only a few times in Luke: Luke 3:8; 5:32; 15:7. However, it comes back resoundingly at the end of the Gospel in Luke 24:45–47. There is a somewhat wider use in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 5:31; 11:18; 13:24; 19:4; 20:21; 26:20).
Verses 4-5 Luke has extended considerably the citation first found in Mark 1:2. By the adjustment of punctuation (noted above), the text is made to point to John the Baptist, who was the voice crying out in the wilderness.
Verse 6 The last line is adjusted to “all flesh shall see the salvation of God”, echoing Is 52:10 and 2 Esd 6:25, as was seen above. Thus, Luke universalises even the ministry of John the Baptist, as a preparation for the proclamation of Jesus. Salvation (as noun and verb) recurs: Luke 1:47, 69, 71, 77; 2:11, 30; 3:6; 19:9; Acts 4:12; 5:31; 7:25; 13:23, 26, 47; 16:17; 27:34; 28:28.
Pointers for prayer
1. The manner in which Luke identifies in detail the time when John the Baptist started his preaching shows that Luke regarded this as a historic moment. Perhaps you can recall in detail the time and the circumstances of particularly significant moments in your life?
2. John called people to give expression to their desire for a change of heart by a symbolic baptism in the Jordan. When have you found it helpful to symbolise your desire to change for the better by some symbolic gesture, e.g., burning a packet of cigarettes, sending a card, making a phone call, etc.
3. Behind the quotation from Isaiah lies the practice of preparing festival routes for religious celebrations. Isaiah visualises such a celebration to celebrate the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem. Can you recall a particularly memorable Advent? What happened? Think of how you can do it this year.
God of our salvation, you straighten the winding ways of our hearts and smooth the paths made rough by sin.
Make our conduct blameless, keep our hearts watchful in holiness, and bring to perfection the good you have begun in us.
We ask this through him whose coming is certain, whose day draws near: your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.