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)
Each of the four Gospels tells of John the Baptist heralding the coming of the Messiah – apart from this text in Luke, 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 Isaiah’s words: “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 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’.”
Luke typically situates his narrative in time and place 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 part of – and crucial to – our history.
From other sources, we know that Tiberius succeeded Augustus in 14CE, which would place the 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.
Luke’s reference, “during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas”, is puzzling. He 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).
the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness: This sentence is redolent with meaning! Moses encountered the burning bush in the wilderness and he heard God speak – see Exodus 3:1-15. The people journeyed for forty years in the wilderness – they were absolutely dependent on the word of God as these were uncharted places and they would simply die there without the guidance of the one who knew the way. Thus Hosea 2:14: “I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” and Psalm 119:105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path”.
This attitude to “the word” continues in the early Christian community, though now it is transformed by their belief in Jesus as the Christ. Thus James 1:22: “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing”; John refers to Jesus Himself as the Word – see the Prologue to John’s Gospel. See also Hebrews 4:12 – “the Word of God is alive and active ….”;
“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”); 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.)
proclaiming a baptism of repentance: The verb Luke uses to describe what John is doing is kēryssō – 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.
Luke tells us that John the Baptist proclaims “a baptism of repentance”. The Greek noun translated here as “repentance” is metanoia. 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 – our attitudes, dispositions, expectations, motivations and so on.
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 is difficult to interpret. The word literally means “immersion” and it carries the idea of “initiation”. One scholar writes: “Deciding how the words go together is difficult; perhaps ‘conversion-baptism’ would be most accurate.” (Ibid) We could conclude that Luke is telling the people – and us – that when we are immersed in the life of Christ we will be transformed. The call to metanoia represents both gift and task therefore. The gift is the transforming life in Christ and the task is to cooperate as best we can. “Make me return that I might return!” (Jeremiah 31:18).
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 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.)
What is it like when someone speaks your name with love or when healing words are brought to bear in a difficult moment? We are grateful. We say: “Oil on troubled waters!” On the other hand, what is it like when words that should be spoken are not spoken and a moody silence reigns or harsh words are spoken? There is conflict – implicit or explicit. We say: “You could cut the air with a knife!” Words can heal and hurt, they can build up or tear down, they can reveal or conceal. Words can be life-giving or death-dealing.
“Language is a living organism and, as such, is subject to certain organic ailments. In (matters religious) it is the exhaustion and decrepitude of words themselves, an infirmity that has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of the sentences they form. The words of religion tend to wear out and get stored in the attic. The word ‘religion’ itself has a certain unction about it, to say nothing of ‘born again’, ‘salvation’, ‘Jesus’, even though it is begging the question to assume therefore that these words do not have valid referents. And it doesn’t help that when religious words are used publicly, at least Christian words, they are often expropriated by some of the worst rogues around, the TV preachers. So decrepit and so abused is the language of the Judeo-Christian religions that it takes an effort to salvage them, the very words, from the husks and barnacles of meaning which have encrusted them over the centuries. Or else words can become slick as coins worn thin by usage and so devalued. One of the tasks of the saint is to renew language, to sing a new song.” (Walker Percy, “Why Are You A Catholic?” in Patrick Samway, ed., Walker Percy: Singposts in a Strange Land, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991, 306).
Luke writes: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius …. the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness”. The word spoken by God! It is rare to find someone who is capable of firstly hearing God’s word and secondly capable of speaking it. The words we speak are too often obfuscated, even buried under, our own agenda. John, on the other hand, speaks God’s word. He is God’s prophet. God speaks to the world through him.
Christmas is a time and a subject where words have “become (so) slick as coins worn thin by usage and so devalued”. We ought not think we can easily redeem the language of this season – language which speaks of “Joy to the world!” and “Peace to all people of good will!” That is, after all, “one of the tasks of the saint to renew language, to sing a new song”. But we ought not think the task belongs to others.
The redeeming word is spoken first of all by silence. By loving presence. By acts of care and concern. By honesty, patience and goodwill. By the witness of goodness and truth. The silent word is most powerful and most likely to help this generation realise that the word “Christ” is not an expletive but a word of infinite love.