In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’. (Luke 3:1-6 – NRSV)
1. Each of the four Gospels tells of John the Baptist heralding the coming of the Messiah – see Matthew 3.1–12, Mark 1.1–8 & John 1.19–28.
All four Gospels cite Isaiah 40:3 in this context of John the Baptist’s preaching: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”. Luke alone includes: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” But then – rather puzzlingly – Luke has ‘and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’. The original text of Isaiah has: “‘Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken’.”
2. Luke typically situates his narrative by reference to historical facts, although the facts, as Luke cites them, do not always match what we know from other sources. Scholars are quick to tell us that we should not assume Luke is trying to give us an exact dating. He is merely emphasizing that he is telling a story within history. He wants the reader to know that Jesus is linked into history at a certain time and place.
Tiberius succeeded Augustus in 14CE, which would place this reference to John the Baptist around 28 or 29CE. Pilate was prefect in Judea 26-36CE (cf Josephus, Jewish War 2:169–174). The Herod mentioned here is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great who died in 4BCE (mentioned in Luke 1:5 but nowhere else in Luke). Herod Antipas was nominal ruler in Galilee from after his father’s death until 39CE (cf. Josephus, Jewish War 2:94). Herod Antipas divorced his first wife to marry Herodias who had been married to his step-brother Herod II. Herod Antipas appears a number of times in Luke’s Gospel – see for example 3:19; 9:7–9; 13:31 and of course in the passion narrative, 23:7–15 – and Acts 4:27.
The reference, “during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas”, is particularly puzzling. Luke repeats this reference in Acts 4:6. Custom in fact dictated there would only be one high priest at a time. Josephus tells us (Antiquities of the Jews 18:26; 35; 95) that Annas was high priest from 6–15CE and was eventually succeeded by his son-in-law Caiaphas (18–36CE). Matthew has Caiaphas alone the high priest (26:3, 57), as does John (11:49; 18:13–28), but John also attests to Annas’ continuing influence and importance (John 18:13, 24).
3. “The word of God” is a central theme in both Luke’s Gospel and in Acts. His Gospel begins by speaking of the “eyewitnesses who became witnesses of the word” – see Luke 1:2. Typically, Luke’s references to “the word” – mostly in the phrase “the word of God” – have rich theological significance. Thus for example, 5:1 (“the crowd was pressing in on (Jesus) to hear the word of God”); 8:11 (in the parable “the seed is the word of God”), 8:21 (“My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it”); 11:28 (“Blessed are they who hear the word of God and obey it”); Acts 4:4 (“many of those who heard the word believed”); 6:2 (“it is not right that we should neglect the word of God to wait on tables”), 7 (“the word of God continued to spread”); 8:4 (“now those who were scattered went from place to place proclaiming the word); 19:10 (“all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord”).
One scholar sums up this theme in Luke-Acts: “It is through the prophetic word that God addresses the people. Luke emphasizes the power of this Word in Acts by showing it as deriving from the Holy Spirit and accompanied by signs and wonders. Indeed, the mission itself can be described as the Word of God expanding and growing (Acts 6:7; 8:14; 10:36; 11:1; 12:24; 19:20). In the interpretation of the parable of the sower, Luke has Jesus identify the seed explicitly as “the Word of God” (8:11) and the human response of faith is correspondingly defined in terms of “hearing” and “obeying” the Word of God (Luke 5:1; 6:47; 8:13–15, 21; 11:28).” (D J Harrington, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 23.)
4. The verb Luke uses to describe what John is doing is kēryssō (κηρύσσω) – literally meaning “to proclaim” or “to announce”. It becomes a technical term for Luke, meaning to proclaim or announce the Good News – see for example 4:18–19, 44; 8:1, 39; 9:2; 12:3; 24:47; Acts 8:5; 9:20; 10:37, 42; 19:13; 20:25; 28:31.
5. Luke tells us that John the Baptist proclaims “a baptism of repentance”. The Greek noun translated here as “repentance” is metanoia (μετάνοια). That translation – the common one – does not quite do justice to the meaning of the word. Metanoia refers to an interior transformation, one that changes the heart and therefore our whole way of being in the world.
One scholar writes: “…. metanoia, …. literally means changing one’s mind or outlook. Although the LXX does not use it to translate the Hebrew teshubah, something of that sense of ‘turning back’ resides in the NT appropriation of metanoia (see Luke 3:8; 5:32; 15:7). ‘Forgiveness of sins’ as a result of conversion fulfills Gabriel’s prediction concerning John (1:77), and is for Luke a constant element of the good news (see 24:47; Acts 5:31; 10:43; 11:18; 13:38; 26:18).” (D J Harrington, op cit, 64.)
The use of the word baptisma (βάπτισμα) is difficult to interpret. The word literally means “immersion” and carried the idea of “initiation”. One scholar writes: “Deciding how the words go together is difficult; perhaps ‘conversion-baptism’ would be most accurate.” (Ibid)
Luke follows Mark here – see Mark 1:4 (“John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance …”). Matthew uses the same word – see Matthew 3:2 (“John the Baptist …. preached …. and this was his message: ‘Repent ….’”). John does not use the word metanoia here or elsewhere in his Gospel.
The Gospel writers are following the prophetic tradition here with their emphasis on conversion of life. John the Baptist is like the prophets of old. For example, in Isaiah 1:16-17 we hear the prophet berate the people: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”.
In the prophets the emphasis on conversion of life is twofold: external behaviour and internal dispositions. Micah cries, “Justice, piety and humility” (6:8) and Zephaniah asks for “humility and sincerity” (2:3 & 3:12-13). But it is Jeremiah who develops the theme of conversion – both in terms of behaviour and dispositions – at great length. Jeremiah proclaims his message “so that everyone would return from his evil ways so that God might pardon” (Jeremiah 36:3).
One scholar writes: “The practical consequences of a change of heart did not at all escape the notice of the prophet (Jeremiah) (cf 7:3-11). He thus begins to doubt that a real conversion was possible. Those whom he called to conversion preferred to follow the hardness of their evil hearts (18:11f; cf 2:23ff). Far from deploring their wickedness, they sank further into it (8:4-7). That is the reason the prophet could proclaim only chastisement for inconvertible Jerusalem (13:20-27). His perspective of the future, however, did not remain less charged with hope. The day would come when the beaten people would accept the chastisement and would implore conversion of heart as a grace: ‘Make me return, that I might return!’ (31:18f). And Yahweh will answer this humble demand, for at the time of the new covenant ‘He will write the law in their hearts’ (31:33): ‘I will give them a heart to know that I am Yahweh; they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they will come back to me with all their hearts’ (24:7).” (Xavier Léon-Dufour SJ, editor, Dictionary of Biblical Theology, translated under the direction of P Joseph Cahill SJ, Geoffrey Chapman, 1972, 431.)
6. Luke, by recalling the prophet Isaiah’s words, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness erēmos (ἔρημος)”, does much more than evoke the prophetic tradition. He is evoking the story of Exodus which provides the central paradigm for the life of Israel. The words of the prophet Hosea come to mind: “Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness (Septuagint: erēmos (ἔρημος), and speak tenderly to her. ….. There she shall respond as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. …. I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy.” (Hosea 2:14-15 & 18-19).
One scholar writes of the significance of the wilderness/desert for both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures: “The memory of the desert was especially significant to the Israelites as a result of their Exodus experience. It was in the desert that Israel first met the Lord, and the tradition was forever set that it was in the desert that one might meet God. The desert was notable in the account of the patriarchs (Gen 12–50) and especially in the flight from Egypt and the journey in the wilderness (Exod 15:22, 16:1, 17:1, 18:5, 19:1–2; Num 14:33, 32:13). In the deserts Israel received the loving protection of the Lord, but the time in the desert was also a time of divine testing and discipline. The desert was therefore also a powerful reminder of the need for Israel to live in fidelity to its covenant promises and its love for the Lord (Hos 2:16; Acts 7:41; 1 Cor 10:5; Heb 3:8). The desert was a place of desolation and also of refuge (Gen 16:7; Exod 2:15–3:1; 1 Sam 23–26; 1 Kgs 19:1–4). It also figured in the New Testament. John the Baptist prepared for his own mission in the desert (Matt 3:1–12, 1:7–10; Mark 1:3–4; Luke 3:1–20; John 1:23). Jesus was also led by the Spirit into the desert to make his final preparation for his earthly ministry and to be tempted by the devil (Matt 4:1–11; Mark 1:12–13). Jesus also retreated to the desert for the peaceful solitude of meditation and prayer (Matt 14:13; Mark 6:30–32; Luke 4:42, 5:16; John 6:15).” (S Hahn, editor, Catholic Bible Dictionary, Doubleday, 2009, 213)
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight ….’
The central fact of this prophecy from Isaiah is “the Lord”. The Lord was revealed to Moses in the burning bush – we are told of this in Exodus 3:1-15. The Lord has promised to be with us. The Lord has taken the initiative to make a Covenant of love. We are called into that Covenant of love.
Given that the Lord is revealed as “I AM WHO I AM” – see Exodus 3:14 – the promise to be with us is a promise of Mystery Presence. “I shall be there as who I am shall I be there!” This might well be experienced by us as absence?
At the heart of our response must be the very simple but very difficult business of getting out of the way and removing obstacles to “the way of the Lord”. As the 14th century spiritual guide, Meister Eckhart has said: “Let God be God in you!”
The Enlightenment taught us that knowledge is power. Emmanuel Kant even gave us a motto: “Sapere aude!” (“Dare to think!”). All good as far as it goes. In fact, this approach to reality has yielded us some remarkable scientific and medical discoveries. It has also brought us to the brink of self-destruction.
John the Baptist’s proclamation adds a much needed dimension. The deeper reaches of living cannot be accessed by our rational powers. When it comes down to it, life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved. More specifically, the essential work of becoming fully alive as a human being is a work of grace, it comes as gift not conquest.
And the thrust of John the Baptist’s message is that, if we get out of the way and let God be God in us, we “shall see the salvation of God”. Goodness, truth, beauty, unity, love, all that the human heart desires, will be revealed – not as the triumph of our will and mastery but as the gift of God’s unmerited grace.
“For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” (T S Eliot, “East Coker”, V.)