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Bible Commentaries
Luke 3

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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Verses 1-2

Luke made detailed reference to the time when John commenced his ministry to document the reliability of his Gospel. [Note: Compare Thucydides 2:2 for a similarly elaborate chronological synchronism.] Only the reference to Tiberius is necessary to date the beginning of John’s ministry that shortly preceded the commencement of Jesus’ ministry. The other references place these events in a broader historical context.

Pontius Pilate was governor (prefect) of Judea from A.D. 26 to late 36 or early 37. Herod Antipas ended his reign as tetrarch of Galilee that began in 4 B.C. by deposition in A.D. 39. His brother Herod Philip, who ruled territories to the northeast of Palestine from 4 B.C., died in A.D. 34. Present historical evidence does not enable scholars to date Lysanias, the tetrarch of Abilene, an area northeast of Damascus. Annas was Israel’s high priest from A.D. 6 to 15 until the Roman authorities deposed him. However the Jews continued to regard him as the high priest, and he retained his title. [Note: Jeremias, pp. 157-58.] His son-in-law Caiaphas served as the official high priest from A.D. 18 to the spring of 37. Thus the general time frame when John began his ministry was between A.D. 26 and the spring of 37. The specific date, the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, is harder to pinpoint, but it was probably A.D. 29. [Note: Hoehner, pp. 29-37.] Then the word of God came to John in the wilderness where he lived (cf. Luke 1:80), and he began his ministry as a prophet (cf. Isaiah 1:1; Jeremiah 1:1-3; et al.).

Verses 1-6

1. The beginning of John’s ministry 3:1-6 (cf. Matthew 3:1-6; Mark 1:1-6)

Verses 1-13


Luke next narrated events that paved the way for Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee and Judea.

Verses 1-20

A. The ministry of John the Baptist 3:1-20

John’s ministry, as Jesus’, did not begin until he was a mature man. This section of the Gospel shows the vital place John played as Messiah’s forerunner.

Verse 3

Luke mentioned John’s itinerant ministry in the region around the Jordan River whereas Matthew described it as in the wilderness of Judea (Matthew 3:1). The thing that characterized John’s ministry in the minds of his contemporaries was his baptism. What marked his baptism distinctively was that it expressed repentance that resulted in divine forgiveness of sins. When people came to John for baptism they were saying that they had repented of their sins. John’s baptism prefigured Jesus’ different kind of baptism (cf. Luke 3:16). Luke said little about John’s baptizing but stressed his preaching.

"The task of ’proclaiming . . . repentance for release of sins’ (Luke 3:3) remains central throughout Luke-Acts [cf. Luke 4:18; Luke 5:17-32; Luke 24:47]." [Note: Tannehill, 1:48.]

Verses 4-6

All three synoptic writers quoted Isaiah 40:3 as the prophecy that John fulfilled, and John the evangelist recorded John the Baptist quoting it of himself (cf. John 1:23). However, Luke alone also quoted Isaiah 40:4-5. These verses contained the preparations made for a royal visitor that were common in the Greco-Roman world. They also included the fact that all people would experience the salvation that God would provide. One of Luke’s main themes was the universal scope of salvation (cf. Luke 2:30; Acts 28:28; et al.). [Note: Morris, p. 95.] Typically Luke quoted from the Septuagint. John’s ministry consisted of preparing the Jews by getting them right with God so when Messiah appeared they would believe on Him.

"This quotation from Isaiah not only interprets John’s special mission but reveals the purpose of God which underlies the whole narrative of Luke-Acts." [Note: Tannehill, 1:47.]

In Luke, John is a "prototype of the Christian evangelist." [Note: Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel, p. 27.]

"The section on John’s ministry begins with a rather lengthy scriptural quotation and ends with an arrest that will lead to death. Jesus’ ministry will begin and end in the same way." [Note: Tannehill, 1:53.]

Verses 7-9

Luke’s introduction of John’s message is more general than Matthew’s, but his summary of John’s preaching is almost identical to Matthew’s. However, Luke never reported that John said, "Repent, for the kingdom is at hand" (Matthew 3:2). Luke waited to introduce the kingdom theme until Jesus began His ministry (Luke 4:43).

As adders try to escape before an approaching brush fire, so the Jews of John’s day were trying to escape God’s coming judgment by fleeing to him for baptism. [Note: Marshall, The Gospel . . ., p. 139.] However, John sensed that their reason for coming to him was just their safety, not genuine repentance. Righteous behavior would demonstrate true repentance. Many of the Jews believed that Abraham’s righteousness availed for his descendants. [Note: W. D. Davis, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, pp. 270-71.] As God had cut Israel out of Abraham, who was a rock spiritually, so He could produce children for Himself from the stones in the wilderness (cf. Luke 19:40). [Note: Plummer, p. 90.] There is a play on words here in Aramaic involving "stones," abnayya, and "children," benayya. People commonly cut down and burn fruit trees that do not produce fruit. Likewise God would judge Israel as a fruitless tree unless the Jews repented and started bearing the fruits of repentance (cf. Luke 6:43-45; Luke 13:6-9; Isaiah 5:1-7).

"The Greek verb [metanoeo, translated "to repent"] means ’to change one’s mind,’ but in its Lucan usage it comes very close to the Hebrew verb for repent which literally means ’to turn or turn around’ (sub). . . . A change of perspective, involving the total person’s point of view, is called for by this term. In fact, John called for the Israelites to bring forth fruit worthy of repentance (Luke 3:8). This passage is significant for it separates repentance from what it produces, and also expresses a link between repentance and fruit. One leads to the other.

"In summary, Luke saw repentance as a change of perspective that transforms a person’s thinking and approach to life." [Note: Bock, "A Theology . . .," pp. 129-30, 132.]

Verses 7-18

2. John’s preaching 3:7-18 (cf. Matthew 3:7-12; Mark 1:7-8)

Essentially John called his hearers to change their minds about their relationship to God and to demonstrate the genuineness of their repentance with righteous conduct (Luke 3:7-14). He also promoted Jesus (Luke 3:15-17). Only Luke included John’s enumeration of specific changes the people needed to make to demonstrate true repentance (Luke 3:10-14).

Verses 10-11

Luke’s unique inclusion of the specific fruits of repentance (Luke 3:10-14) demonstrates his concern for social justice. To the sincere in the crowd John recommended generously sharing their possessions with the needy (cf. Galatians 5:22-23). The tunic (Gr. chiton) was the short undergarment worn under a robe. The Jews often wore two of them at once if they had two. These undergarments were not what we think of as underwear. They were simply an under layer of clothing.

Verses 12-13

John counseled sincere tax collectors to refrain from extorting more money than they had a right to receive (cf. Luke 5:27-32). He advocated honesty and freedom from greed. He did not suggest overthrowing a system that allowed for abuses but prescribed personal morality that would eliminate the abuses.

Verse 14

Soldiers were able because of their position to threaten people with reprisal to extort money from them. Exactly who these soldiers were is unclear, but it is also unimportant. Greed appears to have been a special temptation for them since the wages of soldiers were low. Therefore John called on them to demonstrate contentment.

Luke 3:12-14 help us see that certain temptations are more prominent in certain occupations than others. However material possessions were a source of temptation to all these people, as they still are today.

Verses 15-17

Luke’s account of John’s preaching about Jesus is the longest in the three Synoptic Gospels (cf. John 1:19-25). John distinguished between his baptism and Messiah’s to show that he was not the Messiah.

Matthew’s account of these words stressed the importance of Jesus’ Jewish hearers repenting personally and nationally. Luke tailored his account to Gentiles and stressed the judgment that Jesus would bring (cf. Isaiah 4:4). The presence of only one article before "Holy Spirit" and "fire" in the Greek text suggests that John was referring to one baptism. It is probably the baptism that Jesus will initiate when He returns to earth as the messianic King but which He initiated from heaven as a foreview of that event on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:5; Acts 2:3-4; cf. Isaiah 44:3; Joel 2:28-32). John’s water baptism prefigured Jesus’ baptism. John’s reference to unquenchable fire implies eternal judgment. Jesus will be the stronger One who judges, not just God (cf. John 5:22).

Verse 18

John’s preaching was also positive. He preached good news to the people (Gr. laos, a potentially responsive group) as well as warning them of coming judgment.

"John illustrates how the proclaimer of the Word should perform his task. The preacher must bear good news as well as news that exposes sin. Some preachers in the past tended to emphasize sin so much that one wondered where grace might be found. Today our problem is the opposite: being able to confront people with their accountability and culpability before God." [Note: Ibid., Luke, p. 117.]

Verses 19-20

3. The end of John’s ministry 3:19-20

Luke concluded his account of John’s ministry before he began to narrate Jesus’ ministry. This arrangement of material allowed Luke to continue comparing and contrasting the ministries of the two men. [Note: C. Talbert, "The Lukan Presentation of Jesus’ Ministry in Galilee," Review and Expositor 64 (1967):490.] One writer argued that Luke took John out of the scene before introducing Jesus to minimize John’s importance for the baptist sectarians of Luke’s day (cf. Acts 19:1-7). [Note: Richard J. Erickson, "The Jailing of John and the Baptism of Jesus: Luke 3:19-21," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 36:4 (December 1993):455-66.]

"John’s prophetic call, his ministry in fulfillment of Scripture, his preaching to all classes in society, his falling foul of Herod, and his ultimate fate all have their counterparts in the career of Jesus." [Note: Marshall, The Gospel . . ., pp. 148-49. Cf. H. Flender, St Luke: Theologian of Redemptive History, p. 22.]

John’s stern words about sin led to his arrest and imprisonment by Herod Antipas. Matthew and Mark recorded a longer account of what happened (Matthew 14:4-12; Mark 6:17-29). Luke recorded references to John’s death later (Luke 9:7-9; Luke 9:19-20). Here he stressed John’s boldness and the sickness of the society that he confronted. John probably began his ministry in A.D. 29 and remained free for one year. The next two years he was in prison, and he died in A.D. 32. [Note: Martin, p. 212.]

Verse 21

Evidently John baptized Jesus after he had baptized many other people. Luke may have wanted to imply by this that Jesus’ baptism was the climax of John’s ministry. [Note: Marshall, The Gospel . . ., p. 150.] According to Luke this is the first of many important events that happened while Jesus was praying (cf. Luke 5:16; Luke 6:12; Luke 9:18; Luke 9:28-29; Luke 11:1; Luke 22:32; Luke 22:40-44; Luke 23:46). Only Luke recorded that the heavens opened while Jesus was praying, that is, a revelation from God followed. Luke had a special interest in Jesus’ prayer life. It showed His conscious dependence on His Father as a human being.

"Jesus’ baptism, like that of the people, was a single event in time; but his praying continued for his lifetime." [Note: Liefeld, p. 859.]

Perhaps this explanation accounts for the different tenses of the verb and the participle in this verse. Luke also may have mentioned Jesus’ praying to encourage his readers to do the same. The opening of the heavens indicated divine intervention into human history with revelation. God Himself had not intervened this way for many centuries. Luke’s original readers, with their background in Greek mythology, would have had a special interest in this intervention. The Greek gods supposedly intervened in human affairs occasionally. Moreover Luke’s frequent references to Jesus praying would have helped his original readers realize that Jesus was truly human and not just a god who had visited humans.

"In Luke-Acts times of prayer and worship are frequently the occasions for divine revelations to characters in the story. This is true of Zechariah (Luke 1:9-11), Anna (Luke 2:37-38), Cornelius (Acts 10:2-6), Peter (Acts 10:9-16), Paul (Acts 9:11-12; Acts 22:17-21), and the prophets and teachers of the church in Antioch (Acts 13:2). This is true also of Jesus. Jesus’ choice of the twelve is preceded by prayer, indeed, prayer through the whole night (dif. Matthew, Mark), in which Jesus is evidently seeking divine guidance for the choice (Acts 6:12). The transfiguration also takes place while Jesus is praying (dif. Matthew, Mark). . . . In Luke 22:40-46 also, if Luke 22:43-44 are an original part of the text, Jesus prays concerning his mission and receives a response through a vision of a strengthening angel." [Note: Tannehill, 1:56-57.]

Verses 21-22

B. The baptism of Jesus 3:21-22 (cf. Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; John 1:29-34)

Luke’s account of this significant event is shorter than the parallel passages. At His baptism, Jesus received the anointing of the Holy Spirit for His ministry. It was also the occasion for the Father to authenticate Jesus as His Son. Luke stressed these two features and did not describe Jesus’ actual baptism fully, though he recorded some information that the other evangelists omitted.

Verse 22

This was a theophany, God appearing in corporeal form. The dove is a biblical symbol of peace (Genesis 8:8-12; cf. Genesis 1:2). Primarily it signified the coming of God’s peaceful Spirit to empower Jesus for His ministry (Isaiah 42:1; cf. Isaiah 64:1). Secondarily it represented the peace that Jesus would impart to those who believed on Him. [Note: See L. E. Keck, "The Spirit and the Dove," New Testament Studies 17 (1970-71):41-67.] Only Luke wrote that the Spirit came "in bodily form" thereby giving the theophany more substance. The voice from heaven identified Jesus as God’s beloved Son (cf. Luke 1:32; Exodus 20:1; Psalms 2:7; Isaiah 42:1). God announced that His favor rested on Jesus, not that He as the Father felt delight in His Son. [Note: Morris, p. 100.] With this guarantee of divine enablement, Jesus was ready to begin His ministry.

"The risen Jesus connects the beginning of the apostles’ mission with the coming of the Spirit upon them (Luke 24:46-49; Acts 1:8), and the Pentecost scene shows that the coming of the Spirit leads immediately to the first preaching and expansion of the community. Thus in both Luke and Acts the descent of the Spirit initiates the central sequences of events which dominate these writings." [Note: Tannehill, 1:57.]

"The primary application of this text comes in its Christology. Many in our culture respect Jesus, regarding him as a religious teacher of great significance and even placing him among the top religious teachers of all time. Others even acknowledge him as a prophet, giving him a seat in a rather limited club of divine revealers. But as high as these notes of respect are, they pale in comparison to the biblical portrait. Luke shows that Jesus is not like anyone who came before him or anyone since. The Hall of Religious Fame into which he is placed has only one portrait in it-his. There have been other great teachers, prophets, and kings, but there is only one who has combined all of those roles as God’s Son." [Note: Bock, Luke, pp. 119-20.]

Verse 23

Luke probably mentioned the round number "30" to describe Jesus’ age when He launched His ministry because many significant Old Testament characters began their service of God when they were 30 (cf. Genesis 41:46; 2 Samuel 5:4; Ezekiel 1:1). This included Israel’s priests (Numbers 4). Evidently Jesus was 32 years old when He began His ministry. [Note: Hoehner, pp. 37-38.] Luke also clarified that Jesus was not the physical son of Joseph. People only supposed that He was.

Verses 23-38

C. The genealogy of Jesus 3:23-38 (cf. Matthew 1:1-17)

Why did Luke place his genealogy of Jesus at this point in his Gospel? Probably he did so because this was the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Matthew recorded Jesus’ genealogy to show that He had a legitimate right by birth to occupy the Davidic throne. Consequently he placed his genealogy at the very beginning of his Gospel. Luke wanted to show the ancestry of Jesus, who now began His ministry, as the authenticated Son of God.

There are several other distinct differences between the two genealogies. They proceed in different directions, Matthew’s starting with Abraham and ending in Jesus and Luke’s beginning with Jesus and working back to Adam and God. Matthew’s list stressed Jesus’ place in the Jewish race by recording Jesus’ ancestry back to Abraham, the father of the Jews. Luke’s perspective is broader tracing Jesus all the way back to Adam and showing Him to be a member of the human race. Matthew grouped his names into three groups of 14 names each whereas Luke simply listed 78 ancestors. It is possible to divide Luke’s list into 11 groups of 7 names each plus God’s name. [Note: E.g., Marshall, The Gospel . . ., p. 160.] But Luke did not draw attention to his divisions as Matthew did. Matthew recorded Jesus’ descent from Joseph through Solomon, but Luke traced other ancestors from Joseph to David’s other son Nathan. Matthew apparently gives Jesus legal line of descent from David naming the heirs to his throne, but Luke gave another branch of David’s family tree that seems to be Joseph’s bloodline. [Note: Ibid., p. 158; Machen, pp. 202-9, 229-32.] Matthew mentioned several women in his genealogy, but Luke mentioned none. Finally Luke’s list is considerably longer than Matthew’s.

"That the genealogy is recorded at all shows Him to be a real man, not a demi-god like those in Greek and Roman mythology. That it goes back to David points to an essential element in His messianic qualifications. That it goes back to Adam brings out His kinship not only with Israel but with the whole human race. That it goes back to God relates Him to the Creator of all. He was the Son of God." [Note: Morris, p. 101.]

Verses 24-38

Matthew traced Joseph’s line back to David through Joseph’s father Jacob and David’s son Solomon. Luke traced Joseph’s line back to David through Joseph’s father Eli (or Heli, NIV) and David’s son Nathan. Is there a mistake in the text, is one of these genealogies really the genealogy of Mary rather than Joseph, or did Joseph have two fathers?

The two lines of Joseph proceed back through two entirely different sets of names. Therefore there does not seem to be an error in the text regarding the name of Joseph’s father. Luke did not even mention Mary in his genealogy, and Matthew seems clearly to have been describing Joseph’s ancestors (Matthew 1:16). Consequently it appears unlikely that one of the genealogies is Mary’s. As strange as it may seem, Joseph appears to have had two fathers.

One solution to this problem is that the custom of levirate marriage in the ancient Near East permitted the widow of a childless man to marry his (unmarried) brother. It was common to consider a child of the second marriage as the legal son of the deceased man to perpetuate that man’s name. In genealogies the ancients sometimes listed such a child as the son of his real father but at other times as the son of his legal father. This may be the solution to the problem of Joseph’s fathers. It is a very old explanation that the third century church father Africanus advocated. [Note: The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus, 1:7.] Evidently either Jacob or Eli (Heli) was Joseph’s real father, and the other man was his legal father. This may also be the solution to the problem of Shealtiel’s two fathers (Matthew 1:12; Luke 3:27). This is only an adequate explanation, however, if Jacob and Eli were half-brothers, specifically the sons of the same mother but not the same father. Jacob’s father was Matthan and his grandfather was Eleazar whereas Eli’s father was Matthat and his grandfather was Levi.

Another solution is that Matthew provided a list of incumbents (actual or potential) to the Davidic throne, and Luke listed Joseph’s physical father and forefathers. [Note: Machen, p. 209; The New Bible Dictionary, 1962 ed., s.v. "Genealogy of Jesus Christ," by F. F. Bruce.] I prefer this view. According to this view Matthew showed that Jesus had a legitimate right to rule as Messiah since He was in the royal line through His legal guardian Joseph. Luke showed that Jesus was a real blood descendant of David. Yet Luke had already showed in chapters 1 and 2 that Jesus was not a biological son of Joseph. Advocates of this view point out that Luke was careful to state that Jesus was only supposedly the son of Joseph (Luke 3:23). However if He was not the physical son of Joseph what is the point of tracing Joseph’s ancestors to prove Jesus’ humanity? This criticism applies to the former view too. Probably in the eyes of Greeks Jesus’ connection with Adam through Joseph would have been adequately convincing.

Another view is that the genealogy is Joseph’s, but Luke did not mean that Joseph was Jesus’ physical father.

"In the eye of the law Jesus was the heir of Joseph; and therefore it is Joseph’s descent which is of importance." [Note: Plummer, p. 103.]

Yet the purpose of the genealogy seems to be to trace Jesus back to the first man to prove that He was a real son of Adam.

The obvious problem with the view that Luke recorded Mary’s genealogy, a fourth view, is that he did not refer to Mary but wrote that his genealogy was Joseph’s. Advocates of this view explained the lack of reference to Mary this way. It was not customary among the Romans or the Jews to include the name of a woman in such a list. [Note: Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, p. 151; Richard C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel, pp. 218-21.] Nevertheless Matthew mentioned four women in his genealogy, and Luke showed more interest in women than any of the other evangelists. [Note: See Tannehill, 1:132-39.] It seems unlikely that he would have refrained from using Mary’s name if he meant that this genealogy was hers.

Most of the scholars are not dogmatic about the solution to this problem.

"It is only right, therefore, to admit that the problem caused by the existence of the two genealogies is insoluble with the evidence presently at our disposal." [Note: Marshall, The Gospel . . ., p. 159. Cf. Morris, p. 101.]

From David to Abraham (Luke 3:32-34), Luke’s list parallels Matthew’s quite closely (Matthew 1:2-6). The list from Abraham to Adam (Luke 3:34-38) is very similar to the one in Genesis 11:10-26 (cf. Genesis 5:1-32; 1 Chronicles 1:1-26). [Note: For a study of the differences and several ways of reconciling them, see M. S. Mills, "A Comparison of the Genesis and Lukan Genealogies (The Case for Cainan)" (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1978).]

The presence of Shealtiel and Zerubbabel in the lists of both Solomon and Nathan’s descendants is another problem (Matthew 1:12; Luke 3:27). King Jeconiah, a descendant of Solomon, may have adopted Shealtiel, a descendant of Nathan and Zerubbabel’s father, into his line (cf. 1 Chronicles 3:17; Jeremiah 22:30). Then Zerubbabel’s descendants continued the two lines of Solomon and Nathan, one branch of the family perpetuating the legal line of Solomon and the other the bloodline of Nathan. [Note: See Plummer, p. 104.] Another possibility is that there were two sets of fathers and sons named Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, one set in Joseph’s legal line and the other in his bloodline.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Luke 3". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/luke-3.html. 2012.
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