Summary: What does true repentance look like? This message is based on John's ministry against a backdrop of political turmoil and religious oppression.
We’ve spent the last few months leading up to Christmas and the birth of Christ talking about how the world was being prepared by God religiously and geopolitically for the arrival of Christ. We saw prophetic fulfillment and covenantal fulfillment through the coming of Jesus Christ, but also through an important forerunner, John the Baptist.
We first learn about John in the early part of Chapter 1 when the Angel Gabriel appears to John’s elderly dad, probably in his 70’s, announcing John’s birth through Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth. In that announcement, Gabriel tells Zechariah that John will be great before the Lord, filled with the Holy Spirit, and turn many people toward the Lord in the Spirit and Power of the great Old Testament Prophet, Elijah. The purpose of all of this was to prepare the way for Jesus’ earthly ministry. (Luke 1:15-17).
Nine months later, John is Born and Zechariah gives an amazing prophetic psalm, Zechariah echos this declaration with the words,
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High (Luke 1:75)
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
That was the first chapter of Luke. The Second Chapter was dedicated to the actual birth and dedication of the Messiah Jesus and it concludes with the scene of Jesus teaching in the Temple at the age of 12. Now in Chapter 3 Luke picks up 18 years with the entrance of the ministry of John the Baptist. John and Jesus are now 30 years old. It is important for me to underscore the purpose of John’s ministry: It is prophetic, it is a preaching ministry, and it is a preparatory ministry all pointing to Jesus. Nothing about John is self-serving. I would also like to preface what I am going to say this morning with the Church is a continuing, but a larger reflection of the ministry of John the Baptist. With that, let’s read the opening verses of Chapter 3:
Luke 3:1–6 ESV
1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ” Luke 3:1–6 ESV
1. The Political Context
The opening 2 verses of Chapter 3 provide for us a significant amount of information on the cultural context of John’s ministry. If you bear with me a few minutes, I want to give you a bit of the backdrop Luke is painting for us here because he gives us 7 names that are important clues to the political and religious context of the day. Five of the names are Roman governors and 2 are names of Jewish High Priests.
Tiberius Caesar succeeded Augustus Caesar mentioned in Luke 2. The Caesar was chosen by the Roman Senate and were often power-hungry tyrants as was the case with Tiberius. His reign was filled with suspicions of Roman and military leaders along with intolerance of foreign religious sects, including Jews. The best estimates place the 15th year for his reign would be around 26 AD. Caesar Augustus forced the Senate to make his son, Tiberias Caesar in 11 AD. So the 15th year of Tiberias’ reign would be 26 AD, which also confirms Jesus as 30 years old when he started his earthly ministry.
Next, we find Pontius Pilate as the governor of Judea whom we know will be involved in ordering the crucifixion of Jesus. In 1961 there was a plaque discovered in Caesarea. There a dedicatory plaque on a building called the Tiberium and on that dedicatory plaque is the name “Pontius Pilate.” Pontius Pilate is a real person. He ruled in Judea from 26-36 AD.
When Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. which would be the same year Jesus was born. He asked the Romans to split his kingdom into 4 parts and each one is given to his 4 sons. Herod Antipas mentioned here in verse 1 as Herod Tetrarch of Galilee. He would eventually be rebuked by John the Baptist for marrying his brother, Philip’s wife, Herodias. Antipas would eventually have John the Baptist beheaded as a promise to his stepdaughter, Salome (Herodias’ daughter) for performing a dance for him (Matt 14:1-13).