The Ministry of the Forerunner (John the Baptist)

Luke 3:1-38


Since the days of Moses God had supplied the nation of Israel with prophet after prophet after prophet. First came Moses, followed by Joshua, Deborah, Samuel, Nathan, the unnamed prophet who faced off Jeroboam 1, Elijah, Micaiah, Elisha, etc. There was seldom a time in Israel's history between 1400 and 400 BC that Israel did not have a prophet. After Malachi prophesied though in 400 BC, God became silent. Why? Because the need for prophecy had ended. God had already prophesied everything that needed to be prophesied concerning the coming of the Messiah/Christ. All that was left to do was to prepare for the coming of Christ and the kingdom of God.

For the next 400 years God prepared for the coming of the Christ first by developing a system of communications Jesus' followers could use to spread the gospel and second by uniting the Mediterranean world with 2 languages, Greek and Latin. After all this had been prepared--which it took 400 years to prepare, God sent Jesus.

Through the prophets God had informed the people that 2 major events would characterize the coming of the Christ, God's Son. First, God's Spirit would start acting in a dramatic way like He had done earlier in the OT. In fact the Christ would be anointed with God's Spirit so that all He did would be under the leadership and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Second, God would not simply send the Christ, the King, without first sending a forerunner (Malachi 4:5-6). Just like royalty here on earth does not descend a place without preparations first being made, so God's king, the Christ, does not arrive without a forerunner (John) first preparing the way. The arrival of the forerunner John upon the scene means that the Christ is about to appear and that God's kingdom is about to become a greater reality.


Before relating John's ministry Luke first informs us of the historical setting of this ministry. John began to preach his message during the 15th year of the reign of Tiberias Caesar, during the administration of Pontius Pilate and the reign of Herod Antipas, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. Why this attention to historical dating? First to show that the story of Christ is not a myth but rather an historical occurrence during real time. When you read Greek and Roman myths, you come away with the timelessness of these myths. Not so with Christianity. It occurred at a real time and in a real place which could be historically verifiable. In fact when Paul defends his gospel before Herod Agrippa 2 and Festus the Roman governor, he says that the events of Jesus' life occurred out in the open, not in a corner off some place that nobody could verify (Acts 26:26).

In fact Christianity is not just historical. It is THE history. It is God's history. I so much believe that Christians are to a large extent responsible spiritually for the country they live in. I really pray over our nation and who our next president should be. Yet the ultimate truth is that the political history of our nation is secondary to the spiritual history we find ourselves in. It is important who our president is; yet God was able to use a tyrant called Caesar Augustus to make sure that His Son was born in Bethlehem of Judea, and not in Nazareth where His parents lived. If God could use Augustus, He can use whoever becomes our next president.

Next, the historical dating of John's ministry points out once again that John was a prophet. When you read the introduction to many of the OT prophets, you will see that the authors of those writings inform us of the historical framework within which they operated: "Isaiah, son of Amoz, during the reigns of Uzziah, Ahaz, and Hezekiah." By introducing John this way, Luke is implying that John was as much a prophet as the great prophets of the OT. Luke wasn't alone in asserting this. According to Josephus the great Jewish historian of the first century AD claimed that the Jews themselves recognized John to be a prophet. According to Josephus they revered him so much that Herod had him arrested because he was afraid the people would do whatever John wanted them to do. The appearance of John in the wilderness means that the silence of the past 400 years has been broken. The Holy Spirit is operating once more because the Christ/Messiah is about to appear on the scene.

Finally, the names in this introduction give us valuable insight into the spiritual condition of Jesus' day. Tiberias Caesar by this time was a degenerate, decadent, vicious tyrant spending the remainder of his life on the isle of Capri amid all the spiritual pollution the Romans could spew forth. Pilate was one of the most hated of the Roman governors who ruled over Israel because of his repeated attempts to force the Jews into idolatry. Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great who murdered the children of Bethlehem, was a member of a family steeped in idol worship and in incestuous relationships. Herod will marry his brother's wife while falling in love with his step-daughter, Salome. She in turn rejects Herod for her uncle. Herod's nephew Herod Agrippa 2 will live in an incestuous relationship with his sister Bernice who later becomes the mistress of the Roman emperor Titus. Few high priests have been as vicious as Annas and Caiaphas. Although Caiaphas was the official high priest, his father-in-law Annas was the real power behind the throne. They will crush any and everybody who threatens their positions of status and power. If ever the Jewish people needed a Savior, it was 2000 years ago during the ministry of John the Baptist.


According to Luke, John appeared in the wilderness around the Jordan River preaching a baptism of repentance. According to Luke (and the other 3 Gospel writers) John's appearance in the wilderness fulfilled Isaiah's prophecy:

The voice of one crying in the wilderness
Make ready the way of the Lord
Make His paths straight
Every ravine shall be filled up,
And every mountain and hill shall be brought low
And the crooked shall become straight
And the rough places smooth
And all flesh shall see the salvation of God

Isaiah 1-39 details the sin and calamity Israel had fallen into. Things became so bad that God sent the Assyrians in 722 BC to destroy the northern kingdom of Israel. Chapter 40 marks a new beginning in the book of Isaiah. In fact it is so radically different from the first part of the book that most OT scholars claim it was written by somebody other than the person who wrote Isaiah 1-39. Isaiah 40-66 proclaims that a new day is emerging for Israel. It will be a day in which righteousness and peace will reign upon the earth, a new day in which there will be a new heaven and a new earth. What brings about the coming of this new day? The coming of God Himself. When the voice cries in the wilderness "Prepare the way of the Lord," God Himself will come to His people in the wilderness. John is that voice crying out in the wilderness; God is now going to meet His people in the wilderness.

Why the wilderness? The wilderness had a special place in God's relationship with His people. For 40 years He groomed Israel, destroying the old generation of slaves and raising up a new generation of holy warriors. For 40 years this new generation had depended upon God for all its needs. For 40 years the people had been isolated from the pagan nations so that their full attention could be on God. In the ministry of John, God was calling His people once more to leave the distractions of life so that they could focus on Him and prepare themselves for His coming. (For us the wilderness is not a place but rather a state of mind.)

By the clause "preaching a baptism of repentance" John meant that people were to repent and to be baptized as evidence that they had truly repented. The 2 went hand-in-hand. A person could say all day long that he had repented; yet if he had not submitted to the rite of baptism, he had not repented the way John said he should.

The word "repentance" in the NT literally means "to change one's mind." For the Jews "the mind" basically played the same part we attribute to the heart. In other words, repentance is not just an academic exercise; it is a change of one's being. We start off wrong in our thoughts, attitudes, and hearts towards God. Repentance means that we make a 180-degree turn in our attitudes and hearts towards God. Instead of being hostile towards God, instead of being indifferent towards God, we now become humble, submissive, and loving towards God. It involves a radical change in our being.

How are we to show that we are humble towards God? First, by obeying Him and being baptized. Somebody who admitted to me that although they were a Christian, they had not been baptized. They justified their not being baptized by saying, "Baptism is just a symbol." That statement is true. It is a symbol; however, it is also a COMMANDED symbol (here and Matt. 28:19). Baptism is not an option in our relationship with God. It doesn't make us a Christian; however, it is a biblicall-sanctioned way we show we are Christians.

The second way we know that we have repented is by a change in our lifestyles. Repentance may start out with weeping and warm, fuzzy feelings in our heart, but it had not better stop there. Repentance always leads to a change in lifestyle. When the people come out to John, he turns on them and calls them "a brood of vipers." He claims that they have come out to him because of God's wrath is about to descend upon them. Just like snakes scurrying from a burning field, so these spiritual vipers are trying to flee from the fire of God's wrath. They're not just to come to John and change a few of their behaviors. They need a radical internal change of heart and of being.

John like others in the NT (John 8:37-44) claimed that your actions showed who your parents were. According to John just like we resemble our earthly parents physically, so we resemble our spiritual parents spiritually. The person who loves and is humble has God as his Father; the person though who is full of hate has Satan as their father. John is stunning the Jews because he is claiming that contrary to their belief neither God nor Abraham is their Father; rather because they are serpents, the Serpent Satan is their father. How does he know it? By their deeds. They need to change over from being sons of the serpent to being sons of God.

This last statement was a direct attack upon the theology of the Jews in the first century. They rightly believed that God had promised to bless Abraham and his seed (Gen. 17:7). They believed that the word "seed" was a plural noun, referring to all of Abraham's physical descendants. Little did they realize that God meant it as a singular noun, referring to the seed Jesus, and that the only way they would receive fully God's blessing was by being in a right relationship with Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16). John goes so far as to claim that being physically descended from Abraham was ultimately worthless in one's relationship to God. If being physically descended from Abraham was all that big a deal, then why would it have been so easy for God to turn the stones around them into sons of Abraham? The Jews had preached baptism for years, in the sense that if a Gentile wanted to become a Jew, he had to be baptized. John though is now turning the tables on the Jews and saying they too must be baptized. Physically descended from Abraham was not enough. They too had to be rightly related to the seed, the coming Messiah.

A change of heart necessarily leads to a change of lifestyle. When the people ask for practical applications of this, John replies in the tradition of the prophets: righteous people care about social justice. If I have more than enough food and clothes, then I need to share them with those who don't have enough. (Nancy has a principle that if you haven't worn something in the past 12 months, then you should give it away to the Salvation Army, etc.) When the tax collectors ask what they should do, John does not tell them to quit their jobs. Taxes are necessary for the purpose of maintaining governments, an institution created by God Himself (Rom. 13:1-7). Rather he commands them not to charge people more than the valid rate. As for soldiers, John tells them not to bully the people. Because of their training and physical prowess, soldiers can intimidate people, even to the extent of extorting money from them. John tells them to be content with their wages and to stop bullying the populace.


The people know that a new day has emerged with the coming of John the Baptist. It was evident by the power of his preaching and his message that the Spirit of God had come upon him. This naturally led the people to wonder whether or not John was the Messiah whom God would fill with His Spirit in order to bring about the kingdom of God. When the crowds ask John if he is the Messiah/Christ, he replies that he is not. In fact the Christ is so far superior to him that John was not worthy to untie the thongs of His sandals, a service that even the lowest of slaves was normally worthy to perform. John is not saying that he is a nobody. In fact he is the forerunner of the king. It's just that in comparison with the king, he is as good as nothing. Jesus is just that much more superior to him and to us.

Another difference between John and the Christ was the different modes of baptism they performed. John merely baptized with water, while the Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. When God was ready to bring about His kingdom, He would pour out His Spirit upon the world. Now the Spirit would not just appear. Rather God would anoint ("christen") His special agent the Christ ("the anointed One") with His Spirit who in turn would pour out the Spirit upon the world. John could only baptize with water; the Christ would actually pour out God's Spirit upon the world and bring about the kingdom of God. This baptism of the Spirit is like a fiery event for all people. For us who have received Jesus as their Lord, the fire of the Spirit purifies us so that we might become like Jesus. On the other hand, for those who reject Jesus, the fire of the Spirit is a destructive agent. We will all experience the fire of the Spirit. It's just up to us to decide whether it will purify us or destroy us.

The day of decision comes for all people. In Luke 3 the day of decision has come to the nation of Israel. For ~1700 years God had reached out to the Jewish nation. Patiently He had groomed them for the coming of the Messiah. That day had now arrived. Whenever a man put an axe to the base of a tree, it meant that it was not a matter of "if" the tree was going to be cut down, it was only a matter of "when." In fact it meant that "when" was right now. So right now God was laying the axe at the base of the tree of Israel. Judgment was not going to be some far-off distant event. It was right now. Their response to the coming Messiah would determine the verdict of that judgment.

Notice that for John the Baptist, the primary purpose of repentance was not good works. Rather the primary purpose of repentance is to prepare somebody for Jesus. Ultimately sin is not that I hated somebody or stole from somebody. Sin is ultimately a rejection of Jesus Christ as Lord of my life. A person can love all day long and yet reject Jesus. On the other hand, if a person submits to Jesus' lordship, he will always love, he will always treat valuably other people's property, etc. John the Baptist was not primarily the forerunner of righteousness (something people seem to say); rather he was the forerunner of Jesus whose lordship in our lives produces righteousness.


According to Luke after John had baptized all who were going to be baptized, Jesus approached John to be baptized. After Jesus was baptized and as He was praying, the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus in the bodily form of a dove and rested upon Him. At the same time the voice of God was heard from heaven saying, "This is My Son with whom I am well-pleased." (Passages like this one provide evidence for the belief in the Trinity. Here we hear the voice of God the Father in heaven, and see the descent of the Spirit and see the Son of God standing in the waters of the Jordan River. They are 3 distinct persons, and yet all are God.)

The baptism formula spoken by God is critical in understanding this passage. When God says, "This is My Son with whom I am well-pleased," He is quoting both Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. The first passage comes from Psalm 2, what OT scholars call a "coronation psalm." OT scholars believe that the Jews wrote this psalm to be sung at the coronation of the Jewish kings. They believed that their kings had a unique relationship with God that could be likened to that of a father/son relationship. The only problem was that after 300 years of bad king after bad king after bad king (1 and 2 Kings), the Jews realized that this psalm must apply to a future king, the Christ who would bring in the kingdom of God. The second passage comes from Isaiah 42 which speaks of the Servant of the Lord whose sufferings would bring about a glorious day for Israel. Most Jews thought that these 2 passages referred to 2 different people, the Messiah and the Servant of the Lord. When God though combines these 2 passages and applies them to Jesus, He is saying that Jesus is the Christ who will bring in the kingdom of God by suffering for the sins of His people. The baptism of Jesus then identifies to John the Baptist that Jesus is the Christ, the One whose sufferings will bring about the kingdom of God.

Notice that at His baptism Jesus is anointed with the Holy Spirit. Even though the Holy Spirit was instrumental in Jesus becoming a baby in Bethlehem, at the baptism Jesus receives a special anointing by the Spirit in order to conduct His ministry under the leadership of and in the power of the Spirit. From this time forward all that Jesus does will be the result of the Spirit leading Him and the result of the Spirit empowering Him. Jesus becomes the model for the Christian who is not supposed to live the Christian life in his own strength and wisdom. Like Christ we too are to live under the leadership of and in the power of the Spirit.