Luke 3:1-21Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, 2while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.
Here Luke gives us another of his definitive timeline markers. Looking at your gospel timeline handout, you can see that the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar was 28 AD. This lines up well with the rule of Pontius Pilate as governor of Judea (26 – 36 AD), the reign of Herod Antipas as tetrarch over Galilee (4 BC – 29 AD), Philip’s reign over Iturea and Trachonitis (4 BC – 34 AD), and the high priesthood of Caiaphas (18 – 36 AD). There are, however, two issues with Luke’s statement here that need to be addressed.
First, the only Lysanias known to secular history was tetrarch of Abilene 40 – 33 BC some 60 years before the time Luke refers to here. We know of this Lysanias through the Jewish Roman historian Flavius Josephus who mentions him in two of his works The Jewish Antiquities and The Jewish War. Lysanias is also known by an inscription found in a temple ruin in the town of Abila (Abilene), and by ancient coins bearing his image and the title “Tetrarch and Priest.” Josephus says that this Lysanias was put to death by Mark Anthony in 33 BC, so either Josephus is mistaken, or Luke is referring to some other Lysanias, possibly the original Lyanias’ son or grandson who may have held a portion of his father’s territory after most of it was taken from his father and given to Herod Agrippa I by the emperor Caligula.
Second, Luke says here that Annas and Caiaphas were high priests. As you can see from your timeline, Annas had been high priest 6 – 15 AD, and Caiaphas was high priest during the time of Jesus’ ministry. Annas, nevertheless, still apparently wielded considerable power within the Sanhedrin. John notes, for example, that Jesus was taken to Annas’ house on the night of His arrest rather than Ciaphas’ house.
John 18:12-1312Then the detachment of troops and the captain and the officers of the Jews arrested Jesus and bound Him. 13And they led Him away to Annas first, for he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas who was high priest that year.
Annas interrogated Jesus that night before sending Him on to Caiaphas, and John also refers to Annas as “high priest” throughout his narrative concerning this interrogation.
John 18:19-2419The high priest then asked Jesus about His disciples and His doctrine.20Jesus answered him, “I spoke openly to the world. I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where the Jews always meet, and in secret I have said nothing. 21Why do you ask Me? Ask those who have heard Me what I said to them. Indeed they know what I said.”22And when He had said these things, one of the officers who stood by struck Jesus with the palm of his hand, saying, “Do You answer the high priest like that?”23Jesus answered him, “If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why do you strike Me?”24Then Annas sent Him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
It may very well have been that Caiaphas was really only high priest by title but actually took his marching orders from Annas. Luke may be referring here to such a behind-the-scenes exercise of power when he says that “Annas and Caiaphas were high priests.” It may also be that the custom was to still refer to a former high priest using the title, just as it is traditional to call former presidents of the United States “Mr/Ms President.” Whatever the reason, both Luke and John refer to Annas as “high priest” although he no longer held that office.
Before we move on, take note of Luke’s statement that Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea in the fifteenth year of the reign of Caesar Tiberius. Of course, we know that Pontius Pilate played a critical role in the condemnation of Jesus, because the Jewish authorities were forbidden to put people to death. In order to execute Jesus, the priests had to obtain the order from the Roman authorities, and that’s where Pontius Pilate came into the picture.
Starting in the 19th century, though, Bible critics began to point out that there were no extra-biblical references to Pontius Pilate except for some historical documents dating from much later. Outside the Bible, there was no evidence contemporary with his life that Pontius Pilate ever even existed. Then in 1961, a stone was found in Caesarea Maritima (the same city from which Paul departed in chains for Rome) which mentions Pontius Pilate, saying that Pilate, the Prefect of Judea had dedicated some new feature of the city to Caesar Tiberius. The stone had been reused as part of a staircase built by the medieval European Crusaders during their fortifications of the city. A replica of the stone was put on display in Caesarea, and the original may be seen in the Israel museum in Jerusalem. Thus the Bible was vindicated in its reference to Pontius Pilate, and we may well praise God that He verified Biblical truth so many years later through the work of the archaeologists.
But this brings to light an issue that is sadly common in scholarship today. We’ve looked at this issue before, but it bears repeating. Modern secular scholars hold the Bible to a much higher standard of validation than they do other ancient historical documents. The Bible is assumed to be false unless corroborated by archaeological evidence or contemporary documentary evidence, while similar ancient documents are assumed to be valid unless proven invalid by such external evidence.
This is patently unfair, but it is understandable. The Bible claims within itself to be God’s very Word, spoken by the Spirit of God, and written down by human authors under the guidance of His Spirit.
2 Peter 1:19-2119And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts; 20knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, 21for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.
This is a unique claim, and thus scholars hold the Bible to a very high standard of verification, as well they should. Thankfully, God has provided such verification time and time again. We may be quite confident that the entire Word of God is entirely true. Some external verification of various Biblical aspects (like the role of Pontius Pilate as governor of Judea during the reign of Tiberius) has already been provided by God. Other verification will be provided in His good time, in accordance with His holy will. We can take this to the bank, and we abide in faith awaiting God’s further revelation. As Jesus told Thomas…
John 20:24-2924Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”26And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” 27Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”28And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”29Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Hebrews 11:1Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Romans 8:22-2522For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. 23Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. 24For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.
Luke 3:3-6 (Matt. 3:1-6; Mark 1:2-6; John 1:19-23)3And he went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, saying:“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:‘Prepare the way of the LORD;Make His paths straight.5Every valley shall be filledAnd every mountain and hill brought low;The crooked places shall be made straightAnd the rough ways smooth;6And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”[Isaiah 40:3-4]
The exact location of the site where John preached is not known. It is likely that it lay somewhere between the outflow of the Jordan from the Sea of Galilee and its inflow into the Salt Sea (Dead Sea). Luke says here that John went into all the region around the Jordan, so he probably did not ever remain in one place for very long. John (the evangelist) mentions two locations along the Jordan by name.
John 1:28These things were done in Bethabara beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
John 3:23Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized.
Unfortunately the exact location of these places named by John has been forgotten. Several candidates have been viably proposed, but there is no definitive confirmation exactly where John’s ministry took place. We should note that some ancient texts read “Bethany” in place of Bethabara, and some modern English translations take this reading. But this is certainly not the same Bethany mentioned as the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, which is located on the Mount of Olives about 2 miles east of Jerusalem.
All four evangelists refer to the prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3-4) we see here, although Luke quotes the prophecy most completely. Matthew and Mark also give us a brief insight into John’s own personal life in the wilderness.
Matthew 3:4Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.
It has been suggested that the reference here to locusts refers to the seed pods of the locust tree, but the Greek word ἀκρίς akris used here clearly refers to the insect. John wasn’t all that unusual in this practice. People in many cultures ate locusts, and still do. Maybe we’ll see deep fried locusts at a state fair in the USA one of these days.
Before we move on, we should note that John preached a baptism of repentance, although he had known of the imminent appearance of the awaited Messiah, and the Gospel of salvation through grace, even while he was in the womb. Clearly, the work of baptism was just as powerless to bring real salvation as the system of animal sacrifice had been throughout the history of Israel. Yet John came baptizing and preaching repentance as a precursor to the revelation of Jesus, in order that the people of the nation (and most especially the Pharisees) might be convicted of their need of a Savior. Thus the baptism and preaching of John prepared the hearts of the people for the preaching of salvation through grace that Jesus would soon proclaim. In this way, John’s ministry fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy that he would, “Make straight the way of the LORD.”
Of course we know that few of the nation came to repentance and belief during the time of John and Jesus. John’s preaching and baptism performed part of the same ministry that God’s Holy Spirit does in the hearts of sinful man today. In John’s time, the Spirit had not yet been given, so John’s preaching took the place of the Spirit in doing what Jesus later said His Spirit would do.
John 16:5-115But now I go away to Him who sent Me, and none of you asks Me, ‘Where are You going?’ 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. 7Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. 8And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: 9of sin, because they do not believe in Me; 10of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; 11of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
Through the preaching of repentance, John’s ministry prepared the hearts of those who God gave the understanding about their inability to fulfill the law, and their consequent need of a Savior. Thus the path was made straight for them to hear the glorious news that Jesus would soon bring them of salvation through grace, by faith in Him.
Luke 3:7-9 (Matt. 3:7-12; Mark 1:7, 8; John 1:24-28)7Then he said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 9And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Luke’s gospel says here that John rebuked “the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him,” but Matthew and Mark specifically mention the Jewish religious leaders.
Matthew 3:5-75Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him 6and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.7But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?…
John also points out here the futility of the Jews’ reliance on their heritage as the seed of Abraham for salvation. God holds little regard for human lineage and heritage. The Word is full of stories in which God disregarded the heritage of the firstborn in preference to those who were obedient to His Word and His will. The gospel of John also relates Jesus’ response to those Jews who placed their hope of salvation on their being Abraham’s descendants.
John 8:37-4737“I know that you are Abraham’s descendants, but you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. 38I speak what I have seen with My Father, and you do what you have seen with your father.”39They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.”Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham. 40But now you seek to kill Me, a Man who has told you the truth which I heard from God. Abraham did not do this. 41You do the deeds of your father.”Then they said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father—God.”42Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and came from God; nor have I come of Myself, but He sent Me. 43Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word. 44You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it. 45But because I tell the truth, you do not believe Me. 46Which of you convicts Me of sin? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me? 47He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God.”
John (the Baptist) continues, saying that those trees which do not bear good fruit are not allowed to remain in unproductive life, but are cut down and thrown into the fire. John’s admonishment to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” is reminiscent of Jesus’ own words regarding our fruit. Jesus makes it clear, though, that our ability to bear worthy fruit is tied to our abiding in Him, and not something we can possibly ‘gin up” on our own…
John 15:1-81“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. 2Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. 4Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.5“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. 6If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. 7If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. 8By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples.
Luke 3:10-1410So the people asked him, saying, “What shall we do then?”11He answered and said to them, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”12Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?’13And he said to them, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you.”14Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?”So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.”
The striking thing for me about this passage is that Jewish society of the day seems to have been disillusioned with the status quot. Many seemed to be seeking the face of God, having realized that the rituals of their Jewish religion were lacking something. I’m impressed with the similarity to our own times. Sadly, most of them still failed to recognize the time of their visitation by the living God of the universe in the form of the man, Jesus of Nazareth. Just so, in our own time, many are distracted from the simple Truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and drawn aside into works-based religion, and feel-good, watered-down doctrines of God’s love which ignore His own proclamation of His coming judgment on sin that He’s given us in His Word.
Clearly, the people recognized a little of the Pharisee in themselves in their reliance on the trappings of the Jewish temple sacrifice system, and conformance with the law for their salvation. Surely they also recognized their own self-righteousness in the pride they held for being children of Abraham. Small wonder, then, that after John rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees, the people asked him, “What shall we do then?”
At first glance, we might conclude from his response in these verses that John was preaching a works-based gospel. Indeed, in his role as Jesus’ forerunner, John did preach repentance, with his baptism being symbolic of the people’s desire to turn from wicked practices to righteousness. The fact remained that no one is able to keep the law, and that none is truly righteous. Yet, John’s ministry was necessary, as we have already seen, to convict the people of their need for a Savior, and to prepare the hearts of the people for the True Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ that they would soon hear from the Messiah’s own lips.