Summary: How is the soil of your heart? Are you ready to receive what God has to say? Learn what true repentance means and doesn’t mean in the ministry of John the Baptist.
Let me say first of all that I am not the gardener in our family - that’s my wife. I am the assistant gardener. But I have learned a thing or two over the years. One is that without adequate soil preparation your garden will not grow plants, it will simply grow seedlings that will be eaten by snails. That’s because the soil is hard and not really able to grow much of anything - at least not anything good.
One way we prepare our garden soil is by tilling. We’ve done it different ways but one of the most effective is done for us by a man named James. James tills the garden in the spring - but that’s not all he does. In the fall James comes and dumps leaves on the garden so that the decaying matter will provide good nutrients when mixed in during the spring.
James is like John the Baptist for our garden. John the Baptist was the tiller - laying words of repentance on the people of Israel like leaves on a garden in the fall. He was telling them that the soil of their hearts needed to be ready to receive one who could bring it to life. His words were also like the tilling of the soil - they rubbed people the wrong way, but did the job of getting them ready to hear Jesus.
In addition to the story of John the Baptist, Luke chapter 3 - also brings us the lineage of Jesus Christ. We also get one of the most accurate pictures of when Jesus lived.
Verses 1 - 2a
This gives Luke’s Roman audience an historical context for Jesus’ life. Tiberius was emperor from A.D. 14 to 37. The fifteenth year of his reign would have been A.D. 28. We can pinpoint that - we just don’t know exactly how old Jesus was at the time.
Pontius Pilate most of us know. His real title was not governor but as the leader of auxiliary troops. The word "governor" is a general one - but Pilate did rule over Judea. The other men: Herod was Herod Antipas, one of Herod the Great’s sons ruled along with his half brother Philip. Lysanias is someone we know nothing about.
There was supposed to be only one high priest - but the Romans installed one of Herod’s sons Caiaphas as high priest in place of Annas. But Annas retained the power and respect of the office he was supposed to hold for life. That’s why there are two names listed.
So we have corrupt rulers over the geographic area known as Palestine - and corrupt religious officials over Judaism - all under Roman authority. Into this powder keg of intrigue, sin, corruption, and political unrest comes a match head - John the Baptist.
Verses 2b - 6
John was in the wilderness - not a desert like we think of but an uninhabited place. The picture is of the Children of Israel in the desert after leaving Egypt. To enter the Promised Land they must repent of the rebellion that saw their forefathers wander for 40 years.
John locates himself along the Jordan River - 70 miles long from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea.
His message to the Jews is radical. Normally, only Gentiles converting to Judaism would need to be baptized. The Jews themselves believed they were clean because they were descended from Abraham. But John says they must prepare their hearts - radically return to God and get ready for something new.
The quotes from Isaiah call on Israel to move out all the moral filth and religious junk that stands in the way of them hearing from Jesus. John himself is the "voice crying in the wilderness."
Okay - so if I’m starting up a new ministry, and I would like to teach people about the Lord and encourage them in their walk - I probably wouldn’t begin my message with "you brood of vipers!"
So what’s going on here? John is a curiosity. There hasn’t been a prophet in Israel in hundreds of years. He’s a curiosity to the Jewish religious elite, and to the just regular folks.
But being curious does not mean they are ready for a radical commitment to God.
They should have expected it. All the prophets from Samuel to Isaiah to Ezekiel - all of them - preached to a stubborn people that they should repent. That’s John’s message as well. Matthew tells us that John spoke these words specifically to the Pharisees and Sadducees - two rival political/religious groups who ran Judaism. They didn’t come for baptism or repentance - but to check this guy out. So he says "did someone warn you that your days are numbered?"