Fresco of Ox symbol of St. Luke

Studying Luke 3 1-20

This week we are studying Luke’s description of the ministry of John the Baptist, reading Luke 3:1-20, focusing on verses 2-6 and 15-18. Luke gives the most detailed account of John’s instructions to his audience, as part of the revival he was conducting in the “region around the Jordan.” Here are a few notes (and some questions, here) on this text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is our third of four lessons from Luke’s gospel. Luke’s gospel, we’ll remember, is notable for its

  • Excellent Greek;
  • Emphasis on Gentiles, inclusion of events involving Gentiles;
  • Unique material – including stories about events leading up to the birth of Jesus, a nativity narrative, and some stories about Jesus’ childhood;
  • Emphasis on a message of economic justice, economic equality, etc.;
  • Attention to Roman political administration and administrative realities.

In light of all that, although there’s an account of the ministry of John the Baptist in each of the gospels, we’ll notice that Luke’s account is peculiarly Lukan.

Luke gives a careful list of major political figures at the beginning of the story: the Roman emperor Tiberias and governor Pontius Pilate, and the collaborating local elites Herod [Antipas], Philipp, and Lysanius. He includes the religious leaders of the day as well, High Priest Caiaphas and his father Annas. By various accounts, Annas had been deposed as high priest by the Romans our year 15CE, but had continued to exert control through his sons and son-in-law, who held the position after him.

Aside from providing some basis for dating the life of Jesus, Luke’s incorporation of these figures sets the stage for everything that follows. Several of these characters will appear again in the passion story. It also underscores the nature of “the world” in which John, and then Jesus, will be operating: imperial, hierarchical, and corrupt, in which the “Jewish leaders” are not their own masters. And it contrasts with the system of authority embodied by John, who is responsive to “the word of God,” and whose baptismal authority derives from that response.

John is said to be “in the wilderness” when the story begins – where he has been for an indeterminate amount of time (see Luke 1:80). This wilderness might be the Judean Desert, maybe near the traditional site of Bethabara, today known as al-Maghtas. [There is a faith-based discussion here, with a couple of good maps; and a secular discussion here.] The traditional site is close enough to Jerusalem that word-of-mouth could have generated “crowds” from that vicinity.

John’s baptism practice is embedded in Jewish ritual practice and story. On the ritual side, there are rules about bathing for purification in various situations set out in Leviticus (chapters 14-17) and in relation to the ceremony of the red heifer, which makes provision for purification after coming in contact with the dead, in Numbers 19.  In Second Temple (John’s & Jesus’) times, the use of mikva’ot, what we think of today as Jewish ritual purification baths, seems to have been very widespread (see this article on the mikvah in the Jewish Virtual Library). On the other hand, John’s specific “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” seems like an innovative variation on the traditioned practice.

On the story side, there are the new beginnings marked by the Exodus – through the waters of the Red Sea, led by Moses – and the entry into the land of Israel – through the waters of the Jordan, led by Joshua (Joshua 3). There may also be overtones of prophetic anointing of kings: Samuel anoints Saul (1 Samuel 10) and David (1 Samuel 16), Nathan anoints Solomon (1 Kings 1), the prophet Elijah (or one of his prophetic lineage) anoints Jehu king of Israel (1 Kings 19:16, 2 Kings 9)

The text from Isaiah quoted here is Isaiah 40:3-5 (with some modification). Since the original historical context of that text was the end of the Babylonian exile, it is emphatically associated with a message of redemption.

All of this text – with the exception of Luke 3:19-20, which if all we know is the lectionary we’d have to know about from Mark 6:17-18 – appears in the lectionary as one of the readings for Advent or Baptism of the Lord.

CLOSER READING: It’s presumably clear to us that John baptizes. In v3 he “proclaims baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” and in v7 crowds come out to be baptized – the “coming out” being another echo of the Exodus story, perhaps.

Oddly, maybe, John doesn’t become the subject of the verb “to baptize” until v16, and that’s to draw the contrast between his water baptism and the coming one’s Holy Spirit and fire baptism. What he mainly does in these verses is talk: proclaiming, saying, answering, and preaching good news. He has a lot of words, and they are not exactly comforting, even though they are described as “good news.”

He also has a funny way of proclaiming that baptism of repentance, because saying “who warned YOU to flee the coming wrath” sounds almost like he’s saying “get out of here, you children of vipers, don’t pester ME!” He must relent, however, because we also have Luke’s record of his advice to these “children of vipers.”

Wrath is coming, the ax is lying at the root of the tree, and results are the issue. His comment about not saying “we have Abraham for our father” seems to mean “don’t kid yourselves by thinking that your inheritance or genealogy gives you any special security.”

In vv11-14, the instances of repentance or “change of mind” John mentions all seem to have something to do with money or property: giving away an extra tunic; sharing food; not gouging the taxpayers, if you’re a tax collector; not extorting favors from the civilians at sword-point, if you’re a soldier. On one hand, it gives a keen sense of what it must have been like to actually live in the ancient world. (Imagine if every time we saw a policeman we figured we’re going to have to hand over the contents of our wallets?) On the other, it makes clear that what “repentance” means in this context involves very concrete, practical actions oriented towards distributive justice.

Then, in vv16-17, John describes his relationship to the Messiah – we presume, because the people are all wondering about the Messiah. John doesn’t use that word, but refers to “one mightier than I,” one whose sandal he is not worthy to unloose, and one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Now the farm implement mentioned is not an ax, but a winnowing fork. [There are some images of winnowing forks at Wikipedia, and a brief video of hand threshing and winnowing with the aid of modern technology here.]

The Greek word for “unquenchable” fire seems to be what has given us our term asbestos, although it seems like the opposite idea, actually.

John’s words are urgent, harsh, judgmental, uncompromising, and contain plenty of violent images; they are about concrete matters of economic justice. So it’s worth thinking about how these words constitute the proclamation of good news.

Certainly it was not the proclamation of good news to Herod, who puts John in prison – an act that just underscores how evil Herod is. But also foreshadowing what we can expect of rulers like Herod before this story is done. Rulers, that is, who have the illusion that they’re the ones in charge.

wadi in Judean desert

Images: “Feuchtwangen Pfarrkirche – Vorhalle Fresko Evangelist Lukas” Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Kedem Stream, Judean Desert, Israel,” Yuvalr, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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