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the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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Bible Commentaries
Luke 3

Barclay's Daily Study BibleDaily Study Bible

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Verses 1-38

Chapter 3


3:1-6 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, and when Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and the district of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, when he was in the desert. So he came into the territory around Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance whereby sins might be forgiven--as it stands written in the book of the words of Isaiah, the prophet, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Get ready the road of the Lord, make his paths straight; every ravine shall be filled up; every mountain and hill will be made low; the twisted places will be made into straight roads and the rough places into smooth; and all flesh shall see God's instrument of salvation.'"

To Luke the emergence of John the Baptist was one of the hinges on which history turned. So much so is that the case that he dates it in no fewer than six different ways.

(i) Tiberius was the successor of Augustus and therefore the second of the Roman emperors. As early as A.D. 11 or 12 Augustus had made him his colleague in the imperial power but he did not become sole emperor until A.D. 14. The fifteenth year of his reign would therefore be A.D. 28-29. Luke begins by setting the emergence of John against a world background, the background of the Roman Empire.

(ii) The next three dates Luke gives are connected with the political organization of Palestine. The title tetrarch (see G5075 and G5076) literally means governor of a fourth part. In such provinces as Thessaly and Galatia, which were divided into four sections or areas, the governor of each part was known as a tetrarch; but later the word widened its meaning and came to mean the governor of any part. Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. after the reign of about forty years. He divided his kingdom between three of his sons and in the first instance the Romans approved the decision.

(a) To Herod Antipas were left Galilee and Peraea. He reigned from 4 B.C. to A.D. 39 and therefore Jesus' life was lived in Herod's reign and very largely in Herod's dominions in Galilee.

(b) To Herod Philip were left Ituraea and Trachonitis. He reigned from 4 B.C. to A.D. 33. Caesarea Philippi was called after him and was actually built by him.

(c) To Archelaus were left Judaea, Samaria and Edom. He was a thoroughly bad king. The Jews in the end actually petitioned Rome for his removal; and Rome, impatient of the continual troubles in Judaea, installed a procurator or governor. That is how the Romans came directly to rule Judaea. At this time Pilate, who was in power from A.D. 25 until A.D. 37, was the Roman governor. So in this one sentence Luke gives us a panoramic view of the division of the kingdom which had once belonged to Herod the Great.

(iii) Of Lysanias we know practically nothing.

(iv) Having dealt with the world situation and the Palestinian political situation, Luke turns to the religious situation and dates John's emergence as being in the priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. There never at any time were two high-priests at the one tine. What then does Luke mean by giving these two names? The high-priest was at one and the same time the civil and the religious head of the community. In the old days the office of high-priest had been hereditary and for life. But with the coining of the Romans the office was the object of all kinds of intrigue. The result was that between 37 B.C. and A.D. 26 there were no fewer than twenty-eight different high-priests. Now Annas was actually high-priest from A.D. 7 until A.D. 14. He was therefore at this time out of office; but he was succeeded by no fewer than four of his sons and Caiaphas was his son-in-law. Therefore, although Caiaphas was the reigning high-priest, Annas was the power behind the throne. That is in fact why Jesus was brought first to aim after his arrest ( John 18:13) although at that time he was not in office. Luke associates his name with Caiaphas because, although Caiaphas was the actual high-priest, Annas was still the most influential priestly figure in the land.

Luke 3:4-6 are a quotation from Isaiah 40:3-5. When a king proposed to tour a part of his dominions in the east, he sent a courier before him to tell the people to prepare the roads. So John is regarded as the courier of the king. But the preparation on which he insisted was a preparation of heart and of life. "The king is coming," he said. "Mend, not your roads, but your lives." There is laid on everyone of us the duty to make life fit for the King to see.


3:7-18 To the crowds who came out to be baptized by him, John used to say, "You spawn of vipers, who put it into your heads to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruits to match repentance. Do not begin to say among yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the axe is laid at the root of the trees. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." The crowds asked him, "What are we to do?" He answered them, "Let him who has two robes give one to one who has none and let him who has food do likewise." The tax-collectors came to be baptized and said to him, "Teacher, what are we to do?" He said to them, "Exact no more beyond what your instructions lay down." The soldiers, too, asked him, "What are we to do?" He said to them, "Treat no man with violence and do not play the false informer and be content with your pay."

When the people were in a state of expectancy and when they were all wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he could be the Anointed One, John answered them all, "I baptize you with water, but the One who is stronger than I is coming, the latchet of whose sandals I am not worthy to unloose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to cleanse his threshing floor and he will gather the corn into his store but he will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire."

Here we have the message of John to the people. Nowhere does the difference between John and Jesus stand out so clearly because, whatever the message of John was, it was not a gospel. It was not good news; it was news of terror.

John had lived in the desert. The face of the desert was covered with stubble and brushwood, as dry as tinder. Sometimes a spark set the face of the desert alight and out from their crannies came the vipers, scurrying in terror from the menacing flames. It was to them John likened the people who came to be baptized.

The Jews had not the slightest doubt that in God's economy there was a favoured nation clause. They held that God would judge other nations with one standard but the Jews with another. They, in fact, held that a man was safe from judgment simply in virtue of the fact that he was a Jew. A son of Abraham was exempt from judgment. John told them that racial privilege meant nothing; that life, not lineage, was God's standard of judgment.

There are three outstanding things about John's message.

(i) It began by demanding that men should share with one another. It was a social gospel which laid it down that God will never absolve the man who is content to have too much while others have too little.

(ii) It ordered a man, not to leave his job, but to work out his own salvation by doing that job as it should be done. Let the tax-collector be a good tax-collector; let the soldier be a good soldier. It was a man's duty to serve God where God had set him.

A negro spiritual says:

There's a king and captain high,

And he's coming by and by,

And he'll find me hoeing cotton when he comes,

You can hear his legions charging in the regions of the sky,

And he'll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.

There's a man they thrust aside,

Who was tortured till he died,

And he'll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.

He was hated and rejected,

He was scorned and crucified,

And he'll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.

When he comes! when he comes!

He'll be crowned by saints and angels when he comes,

They'll be shouting out Hosanna! to the man that men denied,

And I'll kneel among my cotton when he comes.

It was John's conviction that nowhere can a man serve God better than in his day's work.

(iii) John was quite sure that he himself was only the forerunner. The King was still to come and with him would come judgment. The winnowing fan was a great flat wooden shovel; with it the grain was tossed into the air; the heavy grain fell to the ground and the chaff was blown away. And just as the chaff was separated from the grain so the King would separate the good and bad.

So John painted a picture of judgment, but it was a judgment which a man could meet with confidence if he had discharged his duty to his neighbour and if he had faithfully done his day's work.

John was one of the world's supremely effective preachers. Once Chalmers was congratulated on a sermon. "Yes," he said, "but what did it do?" It is clear that John preached for action and produced it. He did not deal in theological subtleties but in life.

THE ARREST OF JOHN ( Luke 3:19-20 )

3:19-20 So then, urging the people with many other pleas, John preached the gospel to them. But, when Herod the tetrarch was rebuked by him concerning the matter of Herodias, his brother's wife, and concerning all the other wicked things he had done, he added this also to them all--he shut up John in prison.

John was so plain and blunt a preacher of righteousness that he was bound to run into trouble. In the end Herod arrested him. Josephus says that the reason for the arrest was that Herod "feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it in his power and inclination to raise a rebellion; for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise." That is no doubt true but the New Testament writers give a much more personal and immediate cause. Herod Antipas had married Herodias and John rebuked him for it.

The relationships involved in this marriage are extremely complicated. Herod the Great was a much-married man. Herod Antipas, who married Herodias and who arrested John, was the son of Herod the Great by a woman called Malthake. Herodias herself was the daughter of Aristobulus, who was the son of Herod the Great by Mariamne, commonly called the Hasmonean. As we have seen, Herod had divided up his realm between Archelaus, Herod Antipas and Herod Philip. He had another son, also called Herod, who was his son by another Mariamne, the daughter of a high priest. This Herod had no share in his father's realms and lived as a private citizen in Rome; he married Herodias. He was in fact her half-uncle, because her father (Aristobulus) and he were both sons of Herod by different wives. Herod Antipas, on a visit to Rome, seduced her from his half-brother and married her. She was at one and the same time his sister-in-law, because she was married to his half-brother, and his niece because she was the daughter of Aristobulus, another half-brother.

The whole proceeding was utterly revolting to Jewish opinion and quite contrary to Jewish law, and indeed improper by any standard. It was a dangerous thing to rebuke an eastern tyrant, but John did so. The result was that he was arrested and imprisoned in the dungeon castle of Machaerus on the shores of the Dead Sea. There could be no greater cruelty than to take this child of the desert and shut him up in a dungeon cell. Ultimately he was beheaded to gratify the resentment of Herodias ( Matthew 14:5-12; Mark 6:17-29).

It is always dangerous to speak the truth; and yet although the man who allies himself with the truth may end in jail or on the scaffold, in the final count he is the victor. Once the Earl of Morton, who was regent of Scotland, threatened Andrew Melville, the reformer. "There will never," he slid menacingly. "be quietness in this country till half a dozen of you be hanged or banished." Melville answered him, "Tush! sir. Threaten not your courtiers in that fashion. It is the same to me whether I rot in the air or in the ground ... God be glorified, it will not lie in your power to hang nor exile his truth." Plato once said that the wise man will always choose to suffer wrong rather than to do wrong. We need only ask ourselves whether in the last analysis and at the final assize we would prefer to be Herod Antipas or John the Baptist.


3:21-22 When all the people had been baptized and when Jesus too had been baptized, as he was praying, the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit in bodily form like a dove came down upon him and there was a voice from heaven. "You are my beloved son; in you I am well pleased."

The thinkers of the church have always sought an answer to the problem, "Why did Jesus go to John to be baptized?" The baptism of John was a baptism of repentance and it is our conviction that Jesus was without sin. Why then did he offer himself for this baptism? In the early church it was sometimes suggested, with a homely touch, that he did it to please Mary, his mother, and in answer to her entreaties; but we need a better reason than that.

In the life of every man there are certain definite stages, certain hinges on which his whole life turns. It was so with Jesus and every now and again we must stop and try to see his life as a whole. The first great hinge was the visit to the Temple when he was twelve, when he discovered his unique relationship to God. By the time of the emergence of John, Jesus was about thirty ( Luke 3:23). That is to say at least eighteen years had passed. All through these years he must have been realizing more and more his own uniqueness. But still he remained the village carpenter of Nazareth. He must have known that a day must come when he must say good-bye to Nazareth and go out upon his larger task. He must have waited for some sign.

When John emerged the people flocked out to hear him and to be baptized. Throughout the whole country there was an unprecedented movement towards God. And Jesus knew that his hour had struck. It was not that he was conscious of sin and of the need of repentance. It was that he knew that he too must identify himself with this movement towards God. For Jesus the emergence of John was God's call to action; and his first step was to identify himself with the people in their search for God.

But in Jesus' baptism something happened. Before he could take this tremendous step he had to be sure that he was right; and in the moment of baptism God spoke to him. Make no mistake, what happened in the baptism was an experience personal to Jesus. The voice of God came to him and told him that he had taken the right decision. But more--far more--that very same voice mapped out all his course for him.

God said to him, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." That saying is composed of two texts. You are my beloved Son--that is from Psalms 2:7 and was always accepted as a description of the Messianic King. In whom I am well pleased--that is part of Isaiah 42:1 and is from a description of the servant of the Lord whose portrait culminates in the sufferings of Isaiah 53:1-12. Therefore in his baptism Jesus realized, first, that he was the Messiah, God's Anointed King; and, second, that this involved not power and glory, but suffering and a cross. The cross did not come on Jesus unawares; from the first moment of realization he saw it ahead. The baptism shows us Jesus asking for God's approval and receiving the destiny of the cross.

THE LINEAGE OF JESUS ( Luke 3:23-38 )

3:23-38 When Jesus began his ministry he was about thirty years of age. He was the son (as it was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph, the son of Mattathias, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Esli, the son of Naggai, the son of Maath, the son of Mattathias, the son of Semein, the son of Josech, the son of Joda, the son of Joanan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, the son of Neri, the son of Melchi, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmadam, the son of Er, the son of Jesus, the son of Eliezer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Symeon, the son of Judas, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonam, the son of Eliakim, the son of Melea, the son of Menna, the son of Mattatha, the son of Nathan, the son of David, the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz, the son of Salmon, the son of Nashon, the son of Amminadab, the son of Ami, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah, the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor, the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Pelag, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah, the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalaleel, the son of Cainan, the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.

This passage begins with the most suggestive statement. It tens us that when Jesus began his ministry he was no less than about thirty years of age. Why did he spend thirty years in Nazareth when he had come to be the saviour of the world? It is commonly said that Joseph died fairly young and that Jesus had to take upon himself the support of Mary and of his younger brothers and sisters, and that not until they were old enough to take the business on their own shoulders, did he feel free to leave Nazareth and go into the wider world. Whether that be so or not, three things are true.

(i) It was essential that Jesus should carry out with the utmost fidelity the more limited tasks of family duty before he could take up the universal task of saving the world. It was by his conscientiousness in the performance of the narrow duties of home that Jesus fitted himself for the great task he had to do. When he told the parable of the talents, the word to the faithful servants was, "Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much" ( Matthew 25:21; Matthew 25:23). Beyond a doubt he was putting his own experience into words when he said that. When Sir James Barries mother died, he said, "I can look back and I cannot see the smallest thing undone." It was because Jesus faithfully performed the smallest duties that the greatest task in all the world was given him.

(ii) It gave him the opportunity to live out his own teaching. Had he always been a homeless, wandering teacher with no human ties or obligations, men might have said to him, "What right have you to talk about human duties and human relationships, you, who never fulfilled them?" But Jesus was able to say, not, "Do as I say," but, "Do as I have done." Tolstoi was the man who always talked about living the way of love; but his wife wrote poignantly of him, "There is so little genuine warmth about him; his kindness does not come from the heart, but merely from his principles. His biographies will tell of how he helped the labourers to carry buckets of water, but no one will ever know that he never gave his wife a rest and never--in all these thirty-two years--gave his child a drink of water or spent five minutes by his bedside to give me a chance to rest a little from all my labours." No one could ever speak like that of Jesus. He lived at home what he preached abroad.

(iii) If Jesus was to help men he had to know how men lived. And because he spent these thirty years in Nazareth, he knew the problems of making a living, the haunting insecurity of the life of the working man, the ill-natured customer, the man who would not pay his debts. It is the glory of the incarnation that we face no problem of life and living which Jesus did not also face.

Here we have Luke's genealogy of Jesus. The Jews were interested in genealogies. Genealogies, especially of the priests, who had to prove unbroken descent from Aaron, were kept amongst the public records. In the time of Ezra and Nehemiah we read of priests who lost their office because they could not produce their genealogy ( Ezra 2:61-63; Nehemiah 7:63-65).

But the problem of this genealogy is its relationship with that in Matthew 1:1-17. The facts are these--only Luke gives the section from Adam to Abraham; the section from Abraham to David is the same in both; but the section from David to Joseph is almost completely different. Ever since men studied the New Testament they have tried to explain the differences.

(i) It is said that both genealogies are symbolic and that Matthew gives the royal descent of Jesus and Luke the priestly descent.

(ii) One of the earliest suggestions was that Matthew in fact gives the genealogy of Joseph and Luke of Mary.

(iii) The most ingenious explanation is as follows. In Matthew 1:16 Joseph's father is Jacob; in Luke 3:23 it is Heli. According to the Jewish law of levirate marriage ( Deuteronomy 25:5 f) if a man died childless his brother must, if free to do so, marry the widow and ensure the continuance of the line. When that happened a son of such a marriage could be called the son either of the first or of the second husband. It is suggested that Joseph's mother married twice. Joseph was in actual fact the son of Heli, the second husband, but he was in the eyes of the law the son of Jacob, the first husband who had died. It is then suggested that while Heli and Jacob had the same mother they had different fathers and that Jacob's father was descended from David through Solomon and Heli's father was descended from David through Nathan. This ingenious theory would mean that both genealogies are correct. In fact, all we can say is that we do not know.

Two things, however, are to be noted about the genealogy of Jesus which Luke gives.

(i) It stresses the real humanity of Jesus. It stresses the fact that he was a man amongst men. He was no phantom or demigod. To save men he became in the most real sense a man.

(ii) Matthew stops at Abraham; Luke goes right back to Adam. To Matthew, Jesus was the possession of the Jews; to Luke, he was the possession of all mankind, because his line is traced back not to the founder of the Jewish nation but to the founder of the human race. Luke removes the national and racial boundaries even from the ancestry of Jesus.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

Bibliographical Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Luke 3". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dsb/luke-3.html. 1956-1959.
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