Commentary on Luke 3:1-6
Last week’s lectionary passage took us nearly to the end of Luke’s story (Luke 21).
This week, we go back nearly to the beginning (Luke 3), where we find a veritable “who’s who” of first-century C.E. ruling officials listed in Luke 3:1-2. Politically, Luke indicates, circumstances have changed; Judea is now ruled by a Roman governor, and the Jewish leaders operate under the Roman emperor Tiberius. Luke’s mention of them speaks both to his historiographical style and to his stated interest (emphasized in the prologue) in presenting an orderly and thorough account (1:1-4).
At the end of this list of leaders comes “John son of Zechariah.” By this point, Luke’s readers have already been introduced to John. We know of his unlikely conception (Zechariah and Elizabeth are “old” and Elizabeth is “barren,” 1:7), and we know that he is related to Jesus. Indeed, most commentaries note that the infancy stories portray John and Jesus symmetrically. Still, they are not meant to be seen as equals; the Baptizer is “great” before the Lord (1:15), but he is clearly inferior to Jesus. This so-called “step-parallelism” portrays John as Jesus’ God-sent precursor.
There is an odd chronological gap between 2:52, which simply states that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, to 3:1, where John comes on the scene fully grown. So startling is this jump that some redaction critics have suggested that the original beginning of Luke’s Gospel was 3:1 and Luke 1 and 2 were added later. One need not engage in source-critical debates to wonder why the narrator skips over Jesus’ and John’s childhoods (with the exception of 2:41-52), especially given that ancient Greco-Roman biographies often did include a hero’s early years. Why does Luke move so suddenly from a story of Jesus at twelve (2:41-52) to the account of John as an adult (3:1-6)?
One effect of the leap from the young Jesus to the adult John is to draw attention to the fulfillment of previous prophecies about John’s role. The angel Gabriel had told Zechariah:
And he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him. (1:16-17)
Zechariah had then reiterated:
And you, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High. For you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. (1:76-77)
By collapsing the timeline of some thirty years into the space between two verses, Luke makes the prophecies about John the Baptist seem to be fulfilled instantaneously. This storytelling technique subtly reinforces the Lukan theme of divine fulfillment.
Luke reinforces divine fulfillment further by citing the prophet Isaiah (“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord …’,” 3:4-6). Luke 3:1-6 situates John the Baptist as a threshold figure, a prophet standing in the gap between the Hebrew prophets of old (like Isaiah) and the promised prophet to come (Jesus).
Given this connection to the Hebrew prophetic tradition, it’s unsurprising that the word of God comes to John “in the wilderness (eremos)” (3:2). The significance of the wilderness was established in Jewish tradition long before John the Baptist showed up there. The Hebrew Bible portrays the wilderness as a place of desolation and scarcity, but also (counter-intuitively, perhaps) as a place of safety and divine provision.
Think, for example, of God’s interventions as Moses leads the people of Israel through their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness, as the young David runs to the desert to escape Saul’s wrath, or as the prophet Elijah flees from persecution into the wilderness. Wilderness imagery permeates prophetic texts, also, and includes promise of abundance and joy (such as Isaiah 35:1: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom …”).
Luke picks up and makes use of the above associations in his depiction of John. Notice, too, the often-overlooked detail in Luke 1:80: “The child [John] grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” John the Baptist does not simply appear one day in the desert. Luke suggests that his growth and spiritual strength actually develop there.
This is a hopeful and necessary message for us today. It doesn’t take much effort to imagine our world as a desert. Scarcity, isolation, hunger, and violence seem to rule the day. The pain and injustice around us can make us wonder whether God is at work in this wilderness. But Luke suggests that the wilderness is precisely where God provides what we need, so that we can now be the ones “crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”
Luke carries these themes throughout the Gospel. “Led by the Spirit into the wilderness” (4:1), Jesus withstands the devil’s temptations and returns “filled with the power of the Spirit” to enter into public ministry (4:14). Again and again, when people’s needs and demands increase, Jesus withdraws to deserted places to commune with God:
But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray. (5:15-16)
Jesus teaches his disciples to do the same. After their return from missionary activities, “he took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida” (9:10). In order to be able to carry on ministry, Jesus — and his followers, then and now — need the space, solitude, and divine provision found in the wilderness.