A Voice Calling "Prepare" (Luke 3:1-6)
Issue 1, January 1, 2000

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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Text

Luke 3:1-6


Exposition

By any account, John the Baptist was a very different man -- weird, some would say. Thrust suddenly into confronting and chiding the civilized world, he was the wild man from the desert, and God had made him so. Why? Vss. 1-2a of our passage root John and Jesus firmly in history, but we're moving quickly to examine John the Baptist in vs. 2b.

John's Preparation (3:2b)

John's conception and birth were well-chronicled and God-attended (Luke 1:5-25, 39-45, 57-79), but a single verse spans the next thirty years: "And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert (Greek eremos) until he appeared publicly to Israel" (1:80).

Just what was this desert, and what did it do to a person? This one who was called to "Prepare the way," how was he himself prepared? Greek eremos refers to " 'desert, grassland, wilderness' (in contrast to cultivated and inhabited country).... Plural 'lonely places' [as in 1:80, can refer to] 'steppe, grassland,' as pasture ... [and] of the Judean wilderness, the stony, barren eastern declivity [slope] of the Judean mountains toward the Dead Sea and lower Jordan Valley."[1]

A north-south ridge of mountains divides Israel. The western slope receives the bulk of the rain blowing east from the Mediterranean, but the eastern slope is much drier, receiving less than 12 inches a year in the southern parts east of Jerusalem and Hebron.[2] To this day there are few towns in this desert land. Jericho in the Jordan Valley exists only because of springs that make life possible.

But this is where John grew up and lived. His father was a priest who lived in "a town in the hill country of Judea" (1:39), perhaps Jutta, 5 miles south of Hebron in Edomite territory or Ain Karim, 5 miles from Jerusalem.[3] More and more, John would spend his time in the desolate Judean mountains east of the ridge and roam the deserted arid plains of Jordan north of the Dead Sea. This became his home. We don't know of any job he held, rather he is pictured as a strange and lonely man who had learned to live off the land.

There in the wilderness God had become his companion, his confidant, his teacher. In a phrase reminiscent of the calling of Old Testament prophets, "the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert" (3:2; Jeremiah 1:2; 2:1; Ezekiel 1:3; Hosea 1:1-2; Jonah 1:1; Micah 1:1; Zephaniah 1:1). He was the last of the Old Covenant prophets, his clothing (Matthew 3:4), spirit (Luke 1:17), and preparatory role (Malachi 4:5-6) those of Elijah. His cousin Jesus placed him among the greatest men in all history (Luke 7:28). In the desert, John came to know God better than people, and when God fully owned his heart and allegiance, John was ready.

What does this kind of desert hermit life do to a person? It produces someone who really doesn't care what "civilized" people think about him. John didn't structure his life in relation to societal norms and expectations, so when he burst upon the scene as a desert preacher, his words were unrefined, blunt, and uncompromising.

Why would God use an eccentric, a maverick, a "loose cannon" in such a crucial role? Because the ordinary person would have bent too easily to the extreme religious and political pressures that came to bear on John. Ordinary wouldn't do, so God fashioned John to be very different. Do you sometimes worry that you are "different," that you don't conform to the average, to the norm of society? Trust God. Your differences may be his design to fit you for a very special task and mission.

John's Message (3:3)

"He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (3:3). The plains to the west of Jordan, for 20 to 30 miles north of the Dead Sea, were part of the desert John called home. There John began to preach "in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar" (3:1), about AD 28.

This itinerant preacher began to confront sin noisily. He probably wouldn't have attracted too much attention if he hadn't publicly rebuked King Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee and Peraea from 4 BC to AD 39, for divorcing his first wife and marrying Herodias, his niece and his brother Philip's former wife (Luke 3:19). Soon John's bold preaching drew a tremendous crowd from Jerusalem and the other towns of Judea (Mark 1:5). His message was this: the kingdom of God is at hand, the Messiah is coming soon (Matthew 3:2), and you're not ready. You are sinful and corrupt. You must repent of your sins and be forgiven.

"Repentance" is Greek metanoia, "a change of mind, repentance, turning about, conversion."[4] Repentance is much more than a sense of guilt. Guilt doesn't save. Unremedied, guilt can beat a person down. Guilt can be explained away, but forgiveness is the only real antidote. Repentance is more than sorrow for getting caught or for doing something wrong. Repentance is an actual change of mind, an action, a step away from a sinful pattern or habit or act. It is change. God's call isn't to guilt or to sorrow, but to change. This was John's message: repent!

The second important word in vs. 3 is "forgiveness," Greek aphesis, which means "1. 'release' from captivity, and 2. 'pardon, cancellation' of an obligation, a punishment, or guilt,"[3] from aphiemi, "let go, send away, cancel, remit, pardon."[5] John declared the existence of grievous sin, the necessity of repentance, and God's offer of forgiveness. People of high station and low, he insisted, had committed sins needing forgiveness. But John didn't leave them there; he offered God's forgiveness, but he did it in a radical way, which brings us to the third important word in vs. 3.

The word "baptism" (Greek baptisma) is found only in early Christian literature, and comes from the verb baptizo, "dip, immerse."[6] Christians have spent lots of energy debating the exact form and place of baptism for Christians and their families, and we won't add fuel to that argument. It is John's baptism that we are studying, the origins of which are difficult to discern precisely. We know that the Community at Qumran (in John's desert "territory," certainly) practiced repeated ritual washings,[7] but John's baptism seems different -- an act of purification and forgiveness that can be looked back upon as a single event (Acts 19:3-4). Probably, the antecedent for John's baptism is the First Century practice of Jewish proselyte baptism, a ritual bath by which a Gentile convert to Judaism was cleansed from moral and religious impurity.[8]

John preached to Jews not Gentiles. When John called on people to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins, he called them to submit to the same kind of cleansing bath required of Gentile converts. What Jew, what "son of Abraham," would so humble himself to do something that only "unclean" Gentiles must do? The common people repented and were baptized gladly, "but the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John" (Luke 7:30). Spiritual pride prevented the religious elite from experiencing God's plan for their lives. What blessing from God might your spiritual stiffness and pride be blocking?

John's Mission (3:4-6)

Who in the world did John think he was? He said, "I am the voice of one calling in the desert, 'Make straight the way for the Lord' " (John 1:23). This quotation from Isaiah 40:3 is quoted more fully in Luke, following the Greek Septuagint translation with which Luke was familiar:

"A voice of one calling in the desert,
'Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all mankind will see God's salvation.' " (3:4-6)

What a clear image major road work to prepare the King's highway -- straightening the curves, as well as cutting and filling so that the road might be level and easy to travel upon. In Southern California old US 99 used to wind, dip, and climb as it crossed the rugged Tehachapi Mountains, finally reaching an elevation of 4,144 feet at Tejon Pass. LeRoy Leland, an old deacon in my former congregation, told me that when he was young it took him two full days to drive a large truck from Los Angeles to Bakersfield. As the road climbed steep mountains he would have to shift to low gear and crawl up the slope. When the road descended into deep canyons he would have to shift in to low gears again and ride the brakes in order to keep the heavy truck from careening off the narrow road. More than once my car has overheated climbing the "grapevine" from the north and the Five Mile Grade to Whitaker Summit from the south. Between 1960 and 1972 the road was upgraded to I-5, one of the most impressive engineering projects in human history. Road cuts hundreds of feet deep sliced through mountains, the rock and dirt used to fill deep gorges and canyons. US 99's historian reports that "more dirt was moved ... than was used for the entire Aswan High Dam in Egypt and it is one of the few single man made objects that can be seen clearly from space."[9]

Whenever I cross the Tehachapis on I-5 I think of Isaiah's words, of John's mission of preparation, and of God's working in my life to make me a fit disciple of Jesus. God is seeking to prepare you and me. To cut through the mountains of our pride, to fill up the valleys of our despair, to straighten our crooked moral rationalizations, and make us fit for the King himself to travel upon. For God desires us to be ready followers, quick to say yes, and free of obstacles that destroy our confidence and ability to serve him, so that "all mankind" will be able to see in us "God's salvation" (3:6).

Major roadwork -- that's what's ahead for us would-be disciples of Jesus on this JesusWalk we've begun together. We've begun the journey with Jesus. We're underway.


Prayer

Lord, I'm humbled to think that you might be able to use my strangeness for your own purposes. But you've made me the way I am, and you've got a plan. I repent of my willful, self-directed ways. I desperately need your cutting and filling, straightening and smoothing in my life. Please forgive my sins and cleanse me for your service. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.


Key Verses

Each week I'll select a key verse. I encourage you to write it out on a 3x5 card, and place it on your mirror or the dashboard of your car, so you can think about it and meditate on it during the week. You might want to memorize the verse so that it can have even more power to transform your thought patterns. Here's this week's verse:

"Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all mankind will see God's salvation." (Luke 3:4-6)


Questions for Discussion

  1. Why do you think God chose someone like John to be Jesus' forerunner?
  2. How can we be sure that all our personal differences are part of God's plan and purpose? Can't some be patterns of sinful reactions to past events? (Let's resist the temptation to get too deep into the mystery of predestination. Grin.)
  3. John was raised in the desert. What kinds of circumstances has God used as a training ground for your preparation?
  4. How dependent are you upon what others think and say about you? How can you change this without becoming callous?
  5. What would you say to a person suffering from chronic guilt over past sins? How can guilt be healthy? How can guilt be unhealthy?
  6. Why is humbling (such as repentance and baptism in John's day) necessary to form disciples of Jesus?
  7. What kind of cutting, filling, straightening, and smoothing work has God been doing in your life? What does he still need to do? Why is this necessary preparation for disciples?


References

See Common Abbreviations

  1. BAGD309.
  2. Barry J. Beitzel, The Moody Atlas of Bible Lands (Moody Press, 1985), pp. 50-51.
  3. Marshall, p. 80.
  4. BAGD512.
  5. BAGD125-126.
  6. BAGD131-132.
  7. Manual of Discipline 1QS 3:4-9; 6:14-23. See also D.S. Dockery, "Baptism," in DJG, p. 56, who thinks the Qumran washings are the most probable antecedent for John's baptism.
  8. G.R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1962, 1973), pp. 23ff.
  9. Grant B. "Casey" Cooper, III, "Historic Highway 99: The Golden State Highway," http://gbcnet.com/ushighways/US99/

Copyright © 1985-2017, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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