Commentary on Luke 3:1-6
Luke’s Gospel proclaims: God does not remain distant from the world. God’s reign enters time and space on the stage of world history, where life is too often constrained by people and events beyond one’s control.
Not the one(s) mighty to save
Luke 3:1-6 sets the stage for John the Baptist’s prophetic call by introducing an A-list of Earthly Powers: an emperor, a governor, three tetrarchs, and two high priests. Together they represent rulers of the known world, the regional lands, and the religious, political, and economic complex that stands at the heart of Jerusalem. Collectively they hold all the authority and might that wealth, military prowess, or ancestry can command.
Indeed, the world to which God sends the Messiah is a world held captive to earthly forms of domination and influence, represented in Luke’s Gospel by men like Tiberius, Pilate, Herod (Antipas), Philip, Lysanias, Annas, and Caiaphas. But, for Luke, the word of God does not come to any of those influential men of power, nor to the political territories over which they have command. It comes instead to a lone man out in the wilderness: John, son of Zechariah.
Luke introduces John with a résumé that highlights his role as a prophet (Luke 3:1-2). Time-stamped by reference to that roll call of rulers (“in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…”), it includes the prophetic call (“the word of God came to John”), family pedigree (“son of Zechariah”), and location (“in the wilderness”).
The pattern is common for identifying Old Testament prophets. Ezekiel provides one example: “On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), the word of the LORD came to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the LORD was on him there” (Ezekiel 1:2-3; see also Jeremiah 1:1-2; Hosea 1:1; Isaiah 1:1).
John hails from priestly ancestry on both sides of the family (Luke 1:5-6). His father, Zechariah, is a priest whose rotation of duties includes service in the Jerusalem Temple. Elizabeth, his mother, descends from the line of priests originating with Aaron. If John were following the family business, he would be engaged in work associated with the Temple, the holy place in Jerusalem where God is said to dwell.
However, filled with the Holy Spirit before his birth (Luke 1:15), John was born to be a prophet (Luke 1:76). Instead of serving near the Israelites’ holiest place on earth—and now having grown and become strong in spirit (Luke 1:80)—he is out in the wilderness, the region around the Jordan (Luke 3:3), at the liminal edge of the Promised Land.2
Far from the centers of worldly power, whether political, priestly, or religious, John fulfills his calling to “go before” the Lord (Luke 1:17, 76) “to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:77).
Given its place in the Exodus narrative, the wilderness (eremos = desert, deserted place) in biblical writings often represents vulnerability and uncertainty. In Luke it is a place of testing and of hunger (Luke 4:1-2; 9:12), and sometimes danger or destruction (Luke 15:4; 21:20) or being lost and then found (Luke 15:4).
It is precisely in that wilderness place of vulnerability and danger that God appears.3
Just as God guided the Israelites by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21), God provides what is needed in the wilderness, such as daily manna (Deuteronomy 8:16; Psalm 78:24) or a feast for multitudes (Luke 9:12-17).
Thus, the wilderness is where (and how) God’s people learn to depend on God.
Paths of preparation
The purpose of John’s prophetic calling is not only to prepare the way of the Lord (Luke 3:4), but to prepare the people to receive the Lord (Luke 1:16-17) through repentance for the forgiveness of sin (Luke 3:3; repentance = metanoia, to change one’s mind). The Gospel reading for next week has much more to say about John’s message of repentance, while the current text, particularly the quotation from Isaiah 40 that concludes the passage, sharpens the focus on preparation.
In its original context, Isaiah 40:3-5 (quoted in Luke 3:4-6) refers to the return from Exile in Babylon. The physical road (or way) of that journey is a rough one, requiring travel over a long distance and a difficult topography. The metaphorical road is a challenge as well. The Israelites had been changed by the experience of exile, and now they were returning to a home that was also changed. Through Isaiah’s prophecy God promises to prepare them for the journey, to “smooth the way” for their return to life in the Promised Land.
Not only do raised-up valleys and flattened mountains lead to smooth passages, but they also represent radical transformation. The language of reversal, common in Luke, evokes words from Mary’s song, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52; see also Luke 4:18).
Nothing looks the same; everything is changed. This is a world set right by being turned on its head—not by the top-down power that is so often prized by humans, but by the upside down power of God.
All flesh shall see…
Today, having experienced the wilderness-level trauma of a global pandemic for nearly two years, many people long for certainty about the road ahead. Some hope for a new life, others ache to return to the way things were, and still others have little energy to look beyond the struggles of the current day.
Very little is certain about the post-pandemic world, except for the promise represented by John’s proclamation in the wilderness: God enters this time and this space in this period of history, so that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6).
Prepare the way of the Lord.
- With a nod to Isaiah 63:1.
- Although Luke clearly regards John as a prophet, this Gospel omits reference to the Elijah-like characteristics ascribed to John by Matthew 3:4 and Mark 1:6; cf. 2 Kgs 1:8.
- Perhaps that is one of the reasons Jesus goes out to the wilderness to pray (Luke 4:42; 5:16).