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Bible Commentaries
Luke 3

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

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In this chapter lies the record of the emergence of John the Baptist (Luke 3:1-6), the message he delivered (Luke 3:7-14), his announcement of the Christ (Luke 3:15-17), the conclusion of John’s ministry and the baptism of Jesus (Luke 3:18-21), and the genealogy of Jesus as traced through Mary (Luke 3:23-38).

Verses 1-2

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Iturea and Trachinitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.

The fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius … On Sept. 17, 14 A.D., this ruler ascended the throne of the Roman Empire.(F1) Luke 3:23 of this chapter states that Jesus, very near this time, was "about thirty years of age." This was the consideration that led to the mistake in our present calendar of dating Jesus’ birth at the beginning of our era in the year 1. It is now known, however, that Tiberius was reigning at the beginning of the year 11 A.D. The Encyclopedia Britannica has this:

From the beginning of 11, when he celebrated a magnificent triumph, to the time of the emperor’s death in 14, Tiberius remained almost entirely in Italy, and held rather the position of joint-emperor than that of expectant heir.(F2)

All of the provincial affairs of the empire were in the hands of Tiberius from the date 11 A.D.; and, as Robertson noted, "Luke would naturally use the provincial point of view."(F3) This dates the emergence of John the Baptist and the beginning of the ministry of Christ, the latter being in 26 A.D., and John’s ministry having been prior to that, with the two overlapping somewhat, as detailed in John’s Gospel. This harmonizes with a date of April 6, 30 A.D. for Jesus’ crucifixion, as recently determined scientifically through computer studies.(F4) It is further corroborated by Matthew’s Gospel, which definitely placed the birth of Christ prior to the death of Herod the Great (4 B.C.). The calculation based on John 2:20, where Jesus’ enemies affirmed that the temple had been under construction for forty-six years, also confirms this. "The temple was begun the year the emperor came to Syria; and this was in 20 or 19 B.C."(F5) Adding the forty-six years brings us to the year 26 A.D. in which the first passover of our Lord’s ministry occurred. Any more exact determination of the date would appear to be impossible at this time, as the many contradictory opinions of great scholars indicate.

It will be noted that Luke cited no less than six notable persons in high office with the Roman empire and also with the Jews, nailing down the historical context of this record with the most dogmatic certainty. This student has an impression that Luke’s citing so many names here was prompted by some uncertainty on his part with regard to the exact meaning of "fifteenth year of Tiberius," knowing perhaps that it could have been counted from either 11 A.D. or 14 A.D.

Here is a list of the dates history has assigned to the periods when each of the notables Luke here mentioned exercised his authority:

Pontius Pilate, Roman Governor of Judaea (26 A.D. to 36 A.D.). Herod (Antipas), tetrarch of Galilee (4 B.C. to 39 A.D.). (Herod) Philip, tetrarch of Iturea (4 B.C. to 34 A.D.). Lysanias, tetrarch of Abilene (not certainly known).(F6) Annas and Caiaphas, high priests in Jerusalem: Annas was high priest from 7 B.C., and although deposed in 15 A.D., continued to be recognized by the Jews as the true high priest. Caiaphas was only one of five sons and sons-in-law of Annas, among whom the high priesthood was rotated during New Testament times.(F7) Caiaphas was named high priest, perhaps briefly, in 18 A.D.; and Dummelow stated that he was appointed "before 26 A.D., being deposed in 37 A.D."(F8) Significantly, Luke regarded Annas and Caiaphas as joint-high priests, corresponding exactly with statements in John.

The date of 26 A.D., as accepted in this commentary for the baptism of Jesus, is not denied by any of the dates noted in the table.

The word of God came to John … It is not related just how the word of God came to John, for God spoke of old to the fathers by the prophets in various ways (Hebrews 1:1).

Verse 3

And he came into all the region around the Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance unto the remission of sins.

This was an extensive area evangelized by John, some sixty-five miles in a straight line from Galilee to the Dead Sea, but as the river runs, more than twice that.

Baptism of repentance unto the remission of sins … This baptism was a new rite, "not founded on the immersions of the old dispensation, but a divinely appointed act, peculiar to Christianity, and first introduced by John."(F9) It is one of the seven baptisms mentioned in the New Testament.(F10) It consisted of the immersion of the penitent in water by the administrator, requiring John to preach where there was "much water" (John 3:23); and, coupled with repentance, it was "unto the remission of sins." John’s baptism was, in fact, "God’s baptism"; and those who rejected it rejected God (Luke 7:30). It was the only baptism ever submitted to by the apostles of Christ (Paul excepted) and was the only baptism in force until Pentecost. Those baptized by John and who followed on to receive the Spirit of Christ experienced the new birth, being born of water and of the Spirit, as Jesus commanded (John 3:1-5). Significantly, the new birth, which requires a birth of water (baptism) and a birth of the Spirit (receiving the Holy Spirit as promised in Acts 2:38), could not be experienced until after Jesus was risen from the dead (John 7:39). From this it is clear that "the remission of sins" was a blessing which John promised prospectively, the actuality of it being necessarily deferred until Pentecost.

For an extensive discussion of the new birth, see my Commentary on John, chapter 3.

Only a very few of the proud Jewish leaders submitted to John’s baptism, a failure on their part which issued finally in their total rejection of the Lord. Christ brought the rite of baptism over into Christianity, making it mandatory for all who would be saved (Mark 16:15-16); but, the tragic pattern of rejection, as in the case of John’s baptism, has been continued under the new covenant; and those who reject it should take note of the consequences in the people who rejected baptism under John.

Repentance … is a change of the human will that issues in reformation of life. It may occur in a moment, but the best results of it last a lifetime. Jesus allowed that repentance may occur seven times in a single day (17:4), and this shows that it may not last a lifetime! However, it is admitted by all that it should. It is the basic condition of God’s forgiveness; and, as long as one is under the probation of life, the need of repentance is constant.

Verses 4-6

As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ye ready the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, And every mountain and hill shall be brought low; And the crooked shall become straight, And the rough ways smooth: And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

This great prophecy is from Isaiah 40:3 ff, the same being God’s promise of a mighty prophet who would precede the coming of the Messiah, the imagery being that of a herald going before an ancient king to make his journey easier. Josephus relates how Vespasian marched into Galilee, with his men going before him to prepare the way, thus:

(They) were to make the road even and straight and if it were anywhere rough and hard to be passed over, to plane it, and to cut down the woods that hindered their march, etc.(F11)

Of course, it was no such thing that John the Baptist would do for Christ. The preparation needed for the rising of the Sun of righteousness was a moral improvement of the people. The conceit that physical descent from Abraham would entitle them to Messiah’s blessing, the foolish notion that the Messiah would be a secular king like Solomon, the conviction that he would drive out the Romans and execute a vindictive and punitive judgment against their Gentile enemies, and the widespread hypocrisy and immorality of the people, the selfishness and hardheartedness of the rich, and the greedy gouging of the people by the concessioners in the temple itself, the gross ritualism and secularism that had buried God’s true law under the priestly traditions — all these cried out to God for correction; and thus it was no small task that challenged the son of Zacharias!

All flesh shall see the salvation of God … Isaiah’s great prophecy should have alerted the Jews to the inclusion in God’s plans of salvation for the Gentiles; but the leaders of the people were set adamantly against any such idea. The chosen people were destined to find in this concept the impossibility of their accepting Christ, which resulted in their own rejection and judicial hardening.

Verse 7

He said therefore to the multitudes that went out to be baptized of him, Ye offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?


This was addressed to the insincere, those who were willing to submit to a rite, but whose lives bore no fruit of repentance. Farrar is credited with the statement that "Only teachers of transcendent holiness, immediately inspired by God with fervency and insight, may dare to use such language."

Verse 8

Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father; for I say unto you that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.

The usual response to any demand that the Israelites of that day should repent was to the effect that they did not need to repent, since they were sons of Abraham. The fact that all the promises were not to Abraham’s fleshly descendants, but to his spiritual seed (the people who were of the character and faith of Abraham), was unknown to the Israel of that generation. Paul spelled it out in Romans; but here, the nigh impossible task of enlightenment fell on John the Baptist. He succeeded in such instances as John the apostle, and others who became followers of Jesus; but the majority of fleshly Israel only scoffed at the truth.

Verse 9

And even now the axe lieth at the root of the trees: every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

Axe … at the root … This was a prophetic vision of the destruction of the Holy City which would ensue as a result of the rejection of Christ by Israel. The metaphor is that of a farmer who chops down an unfruitful tree and burns it. Too long Israel had been barren, as far as any fruits of righteousness were concerned; and her day of grace at the time John spoke was growing short.

Verse 10

And the multitude asked him, saying, What then must we do?

In general, John’s message was that the people should live moral and upright lives, with unselfishness toward the hungry, poor, and the naked, as stated in the next verse.

Verse 11

And he answered and said unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath food, let him do likewise.

See under preceding verse.

Verse 12

And there came also publicans to be baptized, and they say unto him, Teacher, what must we do?

The significance here is that a class of persons utterly despised by the Israelites because of their work as tax collectors for the hated Romans, accepted John’s baptism, conforming their lives as he directed; but there was an additional affront to Israel in the very theory that such persons could please God while still in the employ of the Romans. Significantly, John did not suggest that they resign their jobs.

Verse 13

And he said unto him, Extort no more than that which is appointed you.

Not tax collecting, but dishonest extortion was viewed as sin.

Verse 14

And soldiers also asked him, saying, And we, what must we do? And he said unto them, Extort from no man by violence, neither accuse anyone wrongfully; and be content with your wages.

Even soldiers, just whose soldiers is not clear, were not considered beyond the bounds of redemption. They were not commanded to leave the army but to exhibit attitudes of restraint, truthfulness, and contentment. If these were Roman soldiers, the implications of these words from John must have been extremely distasteful to Israel.

Verse 15

And as the people were in expectation, and all men reasoned in their hearts concerning John, whether haply he were the Christ.


This denotes the widespread, sensational success of John’s preaching, and the wonderment on the part of many if, perhaps, this was indeed the Messiah. Such impressions reached Jerusalem, as we read in John; and the Pharisees sent a delegation to ascertain the facts. However, John denied that he was the Christ (John 1:18-28).

Verse 16

John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptized you with water; but there cometh he that is mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am unworthy to unloose: he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire.

Who are those to be baptized in the Holy Spirit? and in fire? The conviction here is that John spoke of the two classes of humanity to be "baptized" by Jesus, his followers to be guided by the indwelling of the Spirit, and the unbelievers to go away into eternal fire (Matthew 25:41); and the fact of the two general divisions of mankind being in view is proved by the next verse.

Verse 17

Whose fan is in his hand, thoroughly to cleanse his threshing-floor, and to gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.

Israel was the Lord’s threshing-floor; the wheat to be gathered into the granary was the true spiritual seed who would accept Christ and be saved. The chaff represented the unbelievers who would reject and crucify the Lord. The unquenchable fire is a metaphor for the everlasting punishment which shall be meted out to the wicked. Although, in this first context, Israel is the portion of humanity in focus, the teaching here is actually to all men of all ages, regardless of race or any other human distinction.

Verses 18-20

With many other exhortations therefore preached he good tidings unto the people; but Herod the tetrarch, being reproved by him for Herodias his brother’ s wife, and for all the evil things which Herod had done, added this also to them all, that he shut up John in prison.


This concluded John’s ministry, Luke not pausing to recount the story of John’s death; but there is a suggestion in this account which reveals Herod’s treatment of John as the worst of all his crimes.

With many other exhortations … Luke gave only a brief summary of John’s message, but it is sufficient.

Characteristic of Luke’s writings is his pursuit of the narrative about John to its conclusion and then returning to relate a significant event which took place somewhat earlier.

Verses 21-22

Now it came to pass, when all the people were baptized, that, Jesus also having been baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended in a bodily form, as a dove, upon him, and a voice came out of heaven, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.


Jesus being baptized, and praying … Many have pondered the reasons why Jesus was baptized; and among reasons that might have entered into his submission to that rite are the following: (1) The reason that he himself gave, "thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness" (Matthew 3:15), indicates that it would have been unbecoming, even of the sinless Christ, to have withheld obedience to God’s commandment. The message for all men in this is plain.

(2) By so doing, he indicated the adoption of the rite of baptism to be the initiatory ceremony by which men are inducted into Christianity. (3) Through this obedience he "fulfilled" God’s command. (4) His baptism, as revealed in the Scriptures, prefigured the importance of the ceremony in the true religion under the new covenant. Jesus’ baptism announced the importance of it for all men. (5) His baptism symbolized the true meaning of the ordinance in Christianity: (a) one is not a child of God until he is baptized, just as God recognized Christ as his beloved Son immediately AFTER his baptism; (b) prayer, though not denied to anyone, is in many special ways the peculiar privilege of Christians, a privilege contingent upon their baptism; hence Luke indicated Christ’s praying, immediately AFTER his baptism; (c) the Holy Spirit is a gift to Christians, contingent upon their being (among other things) baptized (Acts 2:38); and significantly, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended and remained upon Jesus AFTER his baptism. Therefore, it cannot be denied that the baptism commanded in the great commission (following faith, repentance, and confession) is PRIOR to the convert’s becoming a child of God, receiving the Holy Spirit, and entering into the more exalted prayer-privileges pertaining only to Christians; and we do not hesitate to add that baptism is a precondition to his ever being so endowed.

In this connection, one of the reasons that may not be assigned to Christ’s baptism is this, that he was baptized to set us an example how we might follow him in baptism, since it is impossible for believer’s baptism to correspond to Christ’s. It was not necessary for him but it is necessary for men. He was baptized at about the age of thirty, and that is far longer than any mortal’s baptism should be delayed. Believer’s baptism is "for the remission of sins"; but Christ’s was to fulfill all righteousness.

Holy Spirit descended in a bodily form, as a dove … This was the heavenly portent by which John the Baptist recognized the Messiah (John 1:33). Appropriately, the dove was a clean creature under the Mosaic law, acceptable in the holy sacrifices as an offering to God, an emblem in all ages of peace, gentleness, and innocence, a monogamous creature, possessing no gall, and used as a messenger.(F12)

Voice out of heaven … Thou art my beloved Son … It should be noted that John the Baptist is not the subject of the paragraph, and where his conversation is recorded, it was necessary for Matthew to record it as addressed in the third person in order to avoid misunderstanding. See more under Mark 1:11 in my Commentary on Mark. Three persons of the Godhead are in evidence here: Christ coming up out of the water, the Spirit as a dove descending upon him, and the voice of the Father out of heaven.

Verse 23

And Jesus himself, when he began to teach, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat …


Thirty years of age … On the bearing this has with reference to dating the birth of Jesus, see under Luke 3:2.

We shall not undertake any exhaustive "harmonization" of the two separate genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and here. It is now and has been this student’s conviction for many years that Luke’s genealogy cannot possibly be for Joseph’s line at all, since Luke spelled out in the most emphatic manner the fact that Joseph had no physical connection whatever with Jesus; and in this fact disappears any reason why Luke might have written a genealogy of Joseph.

It is incumbent upon us, however, to demonstrate that the interpretation preferred in this commentary is valid.

(1) Many of the most illustrious and competent scholars who ever lived have accepted ’this as Mary’s line, not Joseph’s. This fact is offered, not for the sake of proving this position by human testimony, because many other great scholars deny it; but it is presented to show that the greatest weight of scholarly evidence tends to the view accepted here. "Among the many modern scholars who accept it are Professor Godet and Dean Plumptre."(F13) Robertson affirmed that the theory of this being Mary’s line "seems the most plausible," citing the following as concurring in that view: Luther, Bengel, Olshausen, Lightfoot, Wieseler, Robinson, Alexander, Godet, Weiss, Andrews, Broadus, and many recent writers.(F14)

(2) The solid evidence that supports this is in the Greek text itself, where the article "the" is omitted before the name of Joseph, and yet is found before all the names in the long list without exception, save for this solitary omission. What does it mean? Godet said: "The omission of the article puts the name (Joseph) outside of the genealogical series."(F15) Robertson said, "This would indicate that `Joseph’ belongs in the parenthesis … (it should) read thus, `being son (as supposed of Joseph) of Heli, etc.’"(F16) Jesus was thus the grandson of Hell, "grandson" being an absolutely legitimate meaning of "son" as used in Jewish genealogies. As a matter of fact, the word "son" in such tables also had the meaning of "son by creation" (as in Luke 3:38), and sometimes even "son-in-law." It is the context that must determine the meaning. In no case would the name of Mary have appeared in the direct line of such genealogies, being contrary to Jewish custom. This necessitated the listing of Jesus as the "son (grandson) of Hell." It certainly cannot be proved that this interpretation is incorrect.

(3) And was Jesus actually the grandson of Heli? The writers of the Jewish Talmud have a passage concerning the pains of hell with the statement:

Mary, daughter of Heli was seen in the infernal regions, suffering the horrid tortures. (After quoting this Haley said) This statement illustrates, not only the bitter animosity of the Jews toward the Christian religion, but also the fact that, according to received Jewish tradition, Mary was the daughter of Hell; hence that is her genealogy that we find in Luke.(F17)

Those who would make Joseph the son of Hell would thus make him the husband of his own sister, besides denying the truth stated by Matthew that Joseph was "begat" by Jacob!

(4) There are other ways of reconciling the two accounts of the genealogy of Jesus, but this is the most plausible and convincing. This is an extensive question, debated for centuries, and it must be confessed that human knowledge is by no means complete with regard to it. Perhaps the most persuasive fact related to the genealogies is that when the enemies of Christianity, such as Celsus and Porphyry, sought to discredit the faith, none of them ever alleged any contradiction in the genealogies. If people who lived when the genealogical tables were still preserved did not dare to allege any contradiction, those who dare to do so nineteen centuries later stand on the most tenuous and uncertain ground.

But what is the point of the genealogy? Surely some attention should be given to that! Once, when this writer was a minister of a great congregation in New York City, a group of students from one of the universities visited him, asking, "But don’t you really believe that the whole Jesus story is a myth?" It happened, when this occurred, that this writer had only recently memorized all seventy-seven names in this list, and he quoted it rapidly, and in full, to the astonished group of students; and then he said: "Now, will any of you brilliant young people give the genealogy of Santa Claus, or of Paul Bunyan, or of Beowulf?" The point was dramatically made. Jesus Christ was no myth! His genealogy is the only one ever constructed that reaches all the way back to God himself. Since then, this preacher has quoted the genealogy before assemblies of college students and congregations throughout America, because the central message is devastating to any alleged mythological explanation of Jesus of Nazareth.

Some have asserted that Luke ignored Abraham; but that is not true. Abraham is in the genealogy; the story of Abraham’s bosom is found only in Luke (Luke 16:19 ff); and one of the strongest statements with reference to that patriarch in the entire New Testament is Luke 13:28. By taking the genealogy back to Adam, Luke stressed the fact of Jesus’ being the Saviour of all men, not merely of Jews. Matthew’s genealogy through Joseph was given for the purpose of showing that Christ, through his legal father Joseph, was the legitimate heir to the throne of David. In the very nature of the God-Man, it was inherent that two genealogies should be provided, one showing his legal status in the eyes of men, and the other giving his true physical descent. The Messianic title, "Son of David," as applied to Jesus required a dual proof: (1) that he was entitled to the throne, as proved by Matthew’s genealogy, and (2) that he was literally descended from David, as proved by Luke’s genealogy. The fundamental "rightness" of this approach to the problem will commend itself to any careful student of the Scriptures. Also, Matthew wrote from Joseph’s standpoint, Luke from Mary’s.


As this commentary was being written, the writer taught a Bible class each Sunday, the lesson being based on the previous week’s studies. Reference was one day made repeatedly to "the Virgin Mary," and, after class, a lady objected to the expression on the grounds that the title thus used tended to support the theory of the virgin’s perpetual virginity. However, this is clearly an incorrect view. Matthew referred to "Simon the Leper" (Matthew 26:6) without any implication that he still had leprosy when Jesus was in his house for dinner; in the same manner, a reference to the Virgin Mary implies nothing of her virginity during the period after the birth of our Lord.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Luke 3". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/luke-3.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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