Commentary on Luke 3:1-6
Note to the preacher: since the lectionary splits Luke’s account of John the Baptist’s ministry between the Second and Third Sundays of Advent, you may want to read the whole of Luke 3:1-18 now.
From History to Confession
Of the four Evangelists, Luke operates with the most self-conscious sense of himself as a historian. For this reason, he at several points situates his characters in the larger historical framework and narrative of the Roman world. Hence, John is born “in the days of King Herod of Judea” (1:5), and Mary and Joseph set out for Bethlehem because of the census ordered by Emperor Augustus, “when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (2:1-2). While the details of Luke’s history are far from precise, factual accuracy is not his concern. Rather, Luke is making a confession of faith: the events he narrates, though apparently small on the world stage — the birth of a son to a priest and his barren wife, the fortunes of a pregnant young woman and her fiancé — are of global significance.
The same is true of today’s reading where Luke pulls out all the stops and names not just one or two historical figures to anchor his story, as in previous scenes, but rather lists seven leaders both secular and religious. Along side this august company, John is nothing, the son of a small town priest. Further, he is nowhere, out in the wilderness. But readers of the biblical saga will recognize that this is the setting for prophecy, as it is to this John, rather than to the mighty, to whom, as Luke narrates simply, “the word of God came.”
While Luke gives less attention to John’s garb or diet than Matthew or Mark, he nevertheless also sees him as a — and perhaps as the last and culminating — representative of the Old Testament prophets. He was of priestly lineage on both sides of his family (1:5), is named by the angel Gabriel as having the spirit and power of Elijah (1:17), and fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah (3:4-6). Similarly, John, moved by the word of God, plays two characteristically prophetic roles: (1) He calls for repentance and, indeed, proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and (2) he also precedes, prepares the way for, and foretells the coming of the Messiah, the one who is the salvation of Israel.
In this way, John serves as the hinge of history, drawing to a close the age of the law and the prophets and inaugurating the age of redemption when, in the words of John’s spirit-filled father, “by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us…”(1:78).
From Confession to Proclamation
It is tempting, in light of the discussion thus far, to imagine that Luke is making in these opening verses two ordinary and sequential moves. First, he paints in broad strokes the historical backdrop of his story and, second, he focuses our attention on the particular character of John who will advance the plot of his narrative. But I suspect the movement is less sequential than it is oppositional. Luke, that is, does not name Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, and Caiaphas merely to set the stage for John’s appearance, but rather to throw in sharp relief the forces that will oppose him and the one who foretells.
As we noticed last week, Luke is keenly interested in the impact his gospel story will have not simply on the world as kosmos — the world, that is, conceived most generally — but also on the world as oikoumene — the world as it is constituted by the political, economic, and religious powers. John’s preaching of repentance, because it will literally turn people away from the powers that be to the Lord, threatens those invested in the present order.
Perhaps this is why Luke extends the quotation from Isaiah also employed by Mark and Matthew. The advent of the one John anticipates will not only straighten paths, but also fill valleys, bring down mountains, straighten what is crooked, and smooth that which is rough (3:5). In this light, it is perhaps not surprising that further on in the story, John’s preaching will ultimately lead to his beheading by one of those just named, while Jesus will still later be crucified by another. Those who are threatened by repentance and forgiveness, after all, will not go without a fight.
In these opening verses — which in many ways serve as the beginning of his gospel proper (with the first two chapters serving as introduction) — Luke lays out the primary dramatic tension that will occupy his remaining chapters. John comes preaching repentance and forgiveness, and the one who follows him, but is greater than him, will do likewise (even praying for the forgiveness of those who crucify him [23:34]). Both will end up dead, but their deaths — and even more, Christ’s resurrection — will shake the foundations of power these seven represent and stand upon. Indeed, by the time Luke writes, all seven are dead, a fact not lost on the community for whom Luke writes, while those who follow Jesus persist, and even flourish.
In this way, Luke moves beyond locating the story of John and Jesus in world history to actually locating — and reinterpreting — the history of the world in light of the story of John and Jesus. Further, Luke locates and reinterprets the history of the readers of his gospel in light of this story as well. Those drawn into this story, Luke proclaims, though perhaps beset by the powerful of the world, have nevertheless been joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection and so will also and eventually triumph. After all, John’s preaching will “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death and guide our feet into the way of peace” (1:79).
Nor does Luke’s bold evangelical reinterpretation of history stop here. Consider again Luke’s extension of the familiar passage from Isaiah: it is, ultimately, “all flesh” that “will see the salvation of God” (3:6). In one stroke Luke reaches across history to claim all of his readers — then and now — who have put their faith in Jesus. For we who sit and listen to this reading about a nobody named John, gripped by the word of God in the nowhere of the wilderness, are likewise suddenly, mysteriously, and oh so powerfully included in the story of repentance, forgiveness, and salvation that begins here but ends only with the close of the age John inaugurates.