Luke 3:2-14 “The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: ‘A voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation.”’ John said to the crowds coming out to be baptised by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’ ‘What should we do then?’ the crowd asked. John answered, ‘The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.’ Tax collectors also came to be baptised. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do? Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, ‘And what should we do?’ He replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.’”
This desert, the river Jordan, the city of Jerusalem, the provinces of Judea and Galilee had all been a part of the Roman Empire for a hundred years. The current emperor, Tiberius Caesar, was being worshipped as a god in the east of the Empire. For over twenty years there’d been a consul of the Roman power living on the Mediterranean coast and he kept an outpost in Jerusalem where lived the Roman governor named Pontius Pilate. Jerusalem and its surroundings (including the wilderness) were directly controlled by Rome, while the emperor had given permission for Herod the Great’s two sons, Herod and Philip, to rule in the north of the country. The Jews, however, wanted the return of David’s line and they were contemptuous of these brothers, judging them to be upstarts, a self-appointed ‘royal’ house. Even the Lord Jesus was to dismiss Herod as a ‘fox.’ The religion of Israel was controlled by the house of Annas, a power-hungry godfather whose son-in-law Caiaphas was the recent high priest following half a dozen of his brothers-in-law into that office.
In the nation there were true believers who worshipped God such as Simeon, Anna, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary. They feared Jehovah and they longed for better days. Why had the voice of prophecy been silent for four hundred years? When would the promised one come? Where was God’s Messiah? The land groaned for his appearance. When would God arise and scatter his enemies and bless them? That is the background to the words of our text.
1. IT WAS IN THE WILDERNESS THAT SOMETHING HAPPENED.
“The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert” (v.2). What do we think of when we are told of the barren places, the deserts and wildernesses all over the world? Put them now within the very biggest picture of creation, fall and redemption. At Adam’s fall the curse came on the creation; the thorns and the dustbowls were part of it, as well as the promise of one who would deal with it, and his first step would be bruising the serpent’s head. There was a hope and it was the big picture; “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Roms. 8:21&22). That groan for better times, which by the word is planted in the hearts of the Lord’s congregation, still lives on, that the Eden that has been lost will be regained. That is the fulness of salvation, not only our personal forgiveness and entry into heaven, but God restoring creation, making a new heavens and a new earth. The earth’s wildernesses will know a wonderful metamorphism and they will become a garden, Eden reborn, the lion and the lamb lying down together. The book of Revelation closes as its readers are introduced to a new Jerusalem, a garden city where there are fruits and trees flourishing each side of the river of life that runs through its heart. There will be no wilderness in paradise to come, but until that paradise there must be thorns and thistles and deserts.
That was the framework of John the Baptist’s thinking. When he was confronted with the religious and social life of the people of God then it was to him proof of the curse. The nation reflected man’s fallenness, and so John made a geo-spiritual statement. He left the security of his parents’ home, going to live in the wilderness. The last verse of chapter one of this gospel tells us of John; “And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel” (Lk. 1:80). Israel was a spiritual and cultural wilderness, and so John chose the wilderness as his habitat. He identified with the wilderness; he dressed in a cloak of rough camel’s hair – camels escaped and lived in the deserts and the thorn bushes pulled off their hair and John gathered it together and weaved a garment out of it and held it closed with a belt that he had cut off the skin of a dead beast. His diet in the desert was locusts and wild honey – the only food you could readily find in a wilderness. His whole lifestyle reflected his declaration, “This is a wilderness generation.” Others passed through a wilderness as quickly as they could. We drove across a wilderness, the Great Karoo, on a lonely road in South Africa, getting up before dawn and driving for twelve hours north-east from Cape Town to Kimberley, hardly seeing another car. At the end of eight hours we were longing to get out of the place; what if the car broke down? Conversation was stilted; the loneliness of the place got under your skin. What if we got marooned in the wilderness? Still four more hours to go. How glad we were to see the lights of a town and arrive on the other side.
John the Baptist lived in such a wilderness where no one else lived. This was a visual symbolic judgment on the land that God’s prophet was not at home amongst God’s people. It was like the actions God gave to Jeremiah which were divine comments on the state of his people. “My servant cannot live among such a sinful nation.” In the desert Jeremiah had to cast himself on God, to meditate and draw on God’s strength, and know the fulness of God’s Spirit, and there he was free from the distractions of a sinful society. So he prepared himself for the six months that his public ministry lasted. So when you think of the wilderness you remember the consequences of the fall.
Again, you think what ‘the wilderness’ meant to these Old Testament believers. When their forefathers came out of slavery in Egypt and took off on the exodus to the promised land then they had to pass through the wilderness. The wilderness was a testing time, and a purging time, when the incipient idolatry they had picked up over the last 400 years in Egypt should have been dealt with. The failed the wilderness test. In fact that whole generation had to perish in the wilderness before they could enter the promised land.
So John was warning the nation not to be comfortable, that they had not arrived, enjoying the prosperity of the Roman peace, that they were pilgrims and strangers in this world, that there was a better place before them, and they had better get ready for it purifying themselves as God is pure. You hear this Christian longing in the opening words of Pantycelyn’s most famous hymn, “Guide me O Thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land.” The creation will be under the curse until the end; this is a barren land. You meet it again in the greatest Christian book ever written, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progess and its gripping opening words; “As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed; and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a Book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the Book, and read therein; and as he read, he wept and trembled; and not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying, ‘What shall I do?’” The awakened sinner sees that this world is a wilderness. He has come out of Egypt, but he is not yet in the promised land and he needs help. “What shall I do?” God sends his word to his messenger to help us.
2. THE VOICE THAT SOUNDED IN THE WILDERNESS.
John “went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching . . .” (v.3). The word God gave to John he took out to the people. John went; he did not wait for the people to come searching the wilderness for him. The angel Gabriel had told his father that this boy would become a preacher and the Lord’s herald. “He will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Lk. 1:17). The Queen may pay a visit to the National Library of Wales and so they trim the lawns and make sure that the flower beds are in mint condition. They paint the room where the official meeting is going to take place. The staff are told to look as presentable as possible. They are making ready a place and a people prepared for the royal visit. Again, a general is visiting an army base and so they work on the grounds preparing it for his arrival and they whitewash some areas he might see, and polish the boots and brasses. There is a school inspection and isn’t there preparation for the coming of Her Majesty’s inspectors of education? Every teacher wants to be on her toes and create the best impression.
The Seed of the woman was finally coming to Israel. The Messiah was going to be revealed; “This is he!” It was inconceivable that there would be no preparation for the arrival of so illustrious a person. Every king has a herald go before him. When Joseph was prime minister of Egypt he had men run before his chariot shouting, “Make way!” John was sent to prepare the people for the arrival of the Lord. It was the mightiest of tasks, even prophesied by God in the magisterial fortieth chapter of Isaiah. It is the chapter that contains such comfort for the people of God concluding with these blessed promises, “but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (v.31). But early on it contains the verses quoted here by Luke; “A voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation” (vv.4-6). This coming was not to be prepared for by a whitewash job on a distant wall, polishing a few ornaments in the Temple, not a mere cutting of the grass and watering the flower beds. When Jehovah Jesus comes to Judah and Galilee and Jerusalem then valleys must be filled in before him – fill in the Grand Canyon! – and mountains and hills must be laid low – flatten Ben Nevis! Sharp bends have to be taken out of the roads and every bumpy pot-holed street made smooth because he, the Lord, is finally coming right into the midst of his people in his land.
3. REPENTANCE WAS PREACHED IN THE WILDERNESS.
What is this ‘repentance’ he is talking about? A repentant life. A sinful life is a crooked life, lurching from one crisis to another, bumping along from one fall to another, sometimes mountainous heights of self-achievement and self-glorying – you are really on an upper – and then the next day what crashes, like the Philippian jailor you want to kill yourself – you are really on a downer. That is life on the broad road, not just in its fast lane but every lane. You look at the highest levels in society, from the royal family down to the poorest anonymous people in the nation what valleys of depression they pass through, what Hill Difficulties they must climb, what crooked roads and rough ways year after year. That is the life of men without the Lord. If you do not have the Saviour going before you and with you what a stomach-churning, unpleasant, roller-coaster ride life is.
What a difference if you have the energizing love of God and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the fellowship of the Spirit! It is like one huge earth remover going before you on this rocky mountainous road through life. See it taking away the hills and valleys of idolatry, blasphemy, Sabbath-breaking, dishonouring parents, anger, adultery, stealing, lying and coveting. All that is removed from your life. How wonderful! Then what a smoother path lies before you. Yes, it is a narrow way; not many find it; it’s not a way without many challenges and trials, but the crooked road has been made straight and the blind bends have been removed.
That was John the Baptist’s ministry. He was the maker of the royal highway preparing for the coming of the Lord. How did he do it? What was this great earth remover he had been given by God? Preaching! By preaching to the people in the power of the Spirit that they should repent. It was a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v.3). Remember what the angel Gabriel had told John’s father what his son’s ministry would be? “Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Lk.1:16&17). John would turn people from the broad road to the narrow. On the broad road fathers and their children fought and excommunicated one another, and wisdom was rejected and folly was swallowed hook, line and sinker, but John would turn many of the Israelites to the Lord their God. He would turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous. This is the meaning of repentance: it is a turning, a great change in the direction of our lives, and the affections of our hearts. The repentant travel on a new road; they are loving the things God loves. Personal evangelical repentance is the key to the forgiveness of sins. There is no forgiveness without repentance.
People will mock us saying that the Christian faith is so easy; “. . . you do devilish things and then you say you are sorry and God forgives you?” How simple and unworthy it all seems. No! God requires a change of direction so that the bad things we once loved doing we now hate doing, and we are resolved never to do them again. This is repentance unto life – “a saving grace, whereby a sinner out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it to God with full purpose of, and endeavour after new obedience.” That is the Shorter Catechism’s definition. This was the theme of John’s ministry; he was a preacher of repentance. Let me show you what repentance is in very practical examples; Luke gives us some illustrations of what it has to be to different people; “‘What should we do then?’ the crowd asked. John answered, ‘The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.’ Tax collectors also came to be baptised. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’ ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, ‘And what should we do?’ He replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay’” (vv.10-14).
I appreciate John Piper’s preaching on these words:
i] Notice the three groups which Luke refers to. The “crowd” in verse 10, the “tax collectors” in verse 12, and the “soldiers” in verse 14. Why doesn’t Luke mention fishermen, farmers, carpenters, lawyers, etc.? Surely in that crowd there were other professions. Yes, but these three groups were particularly hostile to each other. The crowd was one of ordinary Jewish people for the most part, but the tax collectors were viewed as greedy Jewish turncoats who used their despised relation with Rome to line their own pockets; and the soldiers probably included Gentiles, but in any case they represented the pagan Roman overlords. Here they all are with the same question: “What shall we do?” They are all now on the same ground, and they are needy. When a person turns to rely on God’s mercy, he can no longer hate his neighbor. It is psychologically impossible to cherish the mercy God has shown to us and at the same time refuse to show it to another. Repentance penetrates the walls that separate classes and races and cliques. Therefore the church, of all institutions, should be free of cliques of people which are uninviting to outsiders. Mercy makes for merry mingling!
ii] Again, Luke’s reason for referring to tax collectors and soldiers is to get Theophilus’ ear. Theophilus, to whom this gospel is written, could be a ranking Roman official, someone like a powerful soldier or a wealthy tax agent, and Luke seems to be intent on keeping the dangers of power and wealth before Theophilus. Mary had worshipped God saying, “God’s mercy is on those who fear him . . . He has put down the powerful from their thrones and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.” (Lk. 1:50-53). And now Luke reports what John has to say to the rich tax collectors and powerful soldiers. You can imagine Theophilus’ ears pricking up. So what changes occur when a tax collector and a soldier repent of their sin and turn to God? Ah, they stop relying on money and power and prestige and start relying on God’s mercy for forgiveness.
iii] Again notice what John says to them; he gives three exhortations; To the multitude (v. 11): “He who has two coats let him share with him who has none; and he who has food let him do likewise.” To the tax collectors (v. 13): “Collect no more than is appointed to you.” To the soldiers (v. 14): “Don’t shake down anybody or extort money by false accusations. Be content with your wages.” When you think of all the hundreds of exhortations John could have given, and may have given, and all the exhortations Luke could have recorded, it is astonishing that in all three cases John refers to their possessions: their stuff . . . their money. We are going to meet this again and again in Luke’s gospel (and remember it is part of the good news) that true repentance, faith in God, reliance on his mercy, hope in his promises changes how we handle our possessions. There is one fundamental reason for that: “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:34). You can tell where a man’s heart is resting by the way he handles his money, and by the attitude he has toward his possessions. If he has really repented of his sin then his heart is resting in the mercy of the all-sufficient God, and he will have the lifestyle John is exhorting here (vv.10–14).
iv] Again notice the difference between the word to the crowds on the one hand and to the tax collectors and soldiers on the other. The crowds are told to give away part of what they have: if you have clothing and food and someone you can help doesn’t, share it. But the tax collectors and soldiers are told not to take more than what they are supposed to. Be content with what you have. The reason for this difference is probably that when addressing a congregation you aim at the general opportunities for compassion and benevolence where all can bear the fruit of sacrificial generosity. But when you are addressing a specific profession, especially one that is notorious for a specific abuse, you put your finger right on that temptation and show them that it does not befit repentance” (from a sermon of John Piper on these verses on his website).
4. THERE WERE BAPTISMS OF REPENTANCE IN THE WILDERNESS.
John’s preaching of repentance was accompanied by a demand that those repenting should be baptized. This was a remarkable development which prepared the way for Jesus also to require that those repenting under his preaching should be baptized. We are told in the opening verses of John chapter four, “The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptising more disciples than John, although in fact it was not Jesus who baptised, but his disciples” (Jn. 4:1&2). Then in the Great Commission Jesus told his disciples, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). This is exactly what they did from the very beginning. There is no one permitted to go on unbaptized on professing faith in Christ. Whether the problem is one of enormous numbers – there were 3,000 men converted in Jerusalem – still somehow or other they all have to be baptized. If it is a person of impeccable old covenant righteousness and a leader like the Pharisee Saul of Tarsus, he too is baptized. If it is a woman like Lydia, she must be baptized. If it is children believing in Christ with their parents then they are baptized. All who become disciples are baptized. One such baptism is actually described for us in Acts chapter eight in the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. We are told, “Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came out of the water . . .” (Acts 838&39). They went into the water together, and they came out of it together. That is the baptizing of John in the river Jordan.
Now it is common to connect this baptism with the symbolic rite that Gentile proselytes went through to become Jewish. They ritually washed themselves, and it was of their old way of life. Washing is a private activity; it is not done before 500 specatators. Washing might be an element in the baptizing of both John and Jesus’ disciples, but there is much more in this baptism. Baptism is not a secret rite. The people being baptized are passive; proselytes wash themselves but they do not baptize themselves; they are baptized, and after the resurrection they are told to baptize in the name of the Triune God in whom they have professed their faith. So such a baptism is a solemn and official initiation, a once for all act, unlike washings which are done often, and not something to be repeated like the Lord’s Supper. Baptism is a ceremony, an acknowledgment of personal repentance, and a profession of faith that this Triune God to whom you have turned is a forgiving God. There is an element of death to the old way of life about it, almost of violence as the new disciple is plunged underneath the waters and brought back out – like the great change in Jonah when all God’s waves and billows passed over him. He had been a rebel against God but after his time in the belly of the great fish an obedient servant of God came out. Baptism says, “Henceforth I am gong to walk the narrow path to life.”
John preached repentance and there were plenty of Scriptures in the Old Testament that supported such a message. But John demand more, that there should be this public profession that a person made nailing his colours up, stating that he had repented. He showed this in going into the river with John and he was baptized by him. This was a very radical act because it symbolized as effectively as anything the extraordinary change that the new covenant would bring. Soon there would be no holy land, no temple, no sacrifices, no food laws, no priests, no Sanhedrin, no judges, no kings, no Pharisees, no tribes, no seventh day Sabbath, no circumcision. All gone! Henceforth there would be the worshipping, believing community of disciples, a baptized fellowship of believers, men and women who had repented and turned from the world. People who shared their clothes with the poor, who took no more than was required from others, who didn’t rip off or bully others. The world was to be filled with righteous, repenting, loving congregations and these would be the world’s salt and light.
This insistence of John that the Jews acknowledge that they had repented, and that they took their stand publicly, and that they be seen to be baptized in the river, all this would have been very offensive to that generation. It had too many echoes of the washing of proselytes. It implied that unless the Jews were willing to repent, they weren’t really believers at all, and they couldn’t count on the promised blessings God had made to his chosen people. When John called his Jewish congregation to come into the river Jordan with him and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins, John was telling them that they couldn’t rely on their circumcision or on their descent from Abraham for salvation. They needed to be changed in their heart toward God. You will remember how that was picked up by the Lord Jesus – because there was no difference at all between the message of John the Baptist and the message of Jesus. When Nicodemus a Jewish religious leader came to him by night we are told that Jesus said, “‘I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.’ ‘How can a man be born when he is old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit’” (Jn. 3:5-8). The new community of Jesus was one which any man and woman might enter as long as each one cried mightily to God that he grant a new birth by his Spirit.
5. THERE WAS A PROPHECY IN THE WILDERNESS OF SALVATION TO THE GENTILES.
It is very interesting how this appears in this narrative, that the way is now open for Gentiles to repent and be forgiven. If Jewish life was wilderness life how much more the life of the Gentile world. John was preaching this striking theme, that if Jewishness does not save, then Gentilishness does not necessarily condemn: the single issue henceforth is the new birth which shows itself in repentance toward God. The way Luke shows us this is in the quotation he cites from Isaiah. John Piper observes that one of the ways to find out what special point Luke might be making is to compare his account (of the baptism or any event like that) with that which the other synoptic writers make of the same event. In other words, you ask what does Luke add or omit different from the accounts of the same incident in Matthew or Mark? All three—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—quote Isaiah 40:3 as a description of John’s ministry: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”. But Luke is the only one who goes on to quote Isaiah 40:4, 5, “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation.” Why did Luke go on to quote those two extra verses? It fits so well in his gospel which Luke is writing with Theophilus and the Gentiles in mind. The repentance John and Jesus were beginning to preach, and the salvation that Jesus would accomplish was for all mankind to see, it was not just for Israel. The world’s mountains of sin are going to be lowered, the crooked ways of the world are straightened, the rough ways are smoothed. In other words crooks and ruffians are changed by the grace of repentance given them by God. Now all mankind, all peoples everywhere in the world, are offered access to salvation.
John Piper points out a confirmation of this in the word ‘salvation.’ The Greek word for ‘salvation’ in verse six is not the usual one, but a rare word that occurs only in Luke’s two books, Luke and Acts, and you come across this just three times in both books. It is found here, and then you come across it back in the previous chapter in 2:30, and finally at the end of Acts, chapter 28 and verse 28. The point in each of those places is to stress that now salvation is being sincerely offered to the Gentiles as well as Jews, and not as second class members of the new kingdom. So Simeon says of the baby Jesus, “For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Lk. 2:30-32). He mentions the Gentiles first of all. Then in Acts 28:28 Paul says to the Jews who rejected the Gospel, “Let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” So Luke’s books are ‘a sandwich of salvation’ offered to the Gentiles, telling them in particular how the gospel of Jesus Christ had its beginning as a new message of salvation to them, with Luke concluding at the end of Acts by showing how the Lord had accomplished that. The salvation that Jesus brings is for all men. The time has come to end concentrating its proclamation to just one race or ethnic group. These are the last days, and this is their dawning with the beginning of a radically new covenant. Take its proclamation from the banks of the Jordan and then go out and out and out to Judea and Samaria as far as you can go, and never stop until you get to the end of the earth. God now commands all men everywhere to repent.
11th November 2007 GEOFF THOMAS