(Note: Because much of the text in this chapter is taken up with genealogy, we can group this section together as ‘technical’ (though just as essential), and thus study the whole chapter in one sitting, avoiding in-depth genealogical study. My approach to the genealogical section is, then, general).
Christians and God’s word have plenty of critics, most of whom are ignorant of what scripture says (sadly, so are many Christians). Here we again see the historical perspective provided by Luke, each detail giving a clue about the times of Jesus. It is these kinds of details - especially the minor ones - that lead any sane person to accept what is written as a plain report of actual events and people.
Luke writes in a matter-of-fact way, and this is encouraging when so many today claim to know Christ and yet act and speak like excitable, chattering children, caring more for ‘experiences’ than for scripture. Since the 1990s thousands of ‘believers’ have told us that we are now in ‘ex-biblical times’, when anyone can give their ‘prophecies’ and teachings even when what they say cannot be verified by scripture.
They even use this approach when what they say or do is against scripture! This is why a man like Luke is invaluable today... just straightforward reports of what actually happened, without emotional or any other ‘frills’.
Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene,
Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.
Luke now looks at the background to the start of John the Baptist’s ministry. John began to preach in the “fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar”. This was Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus (42 BC-37 AD; he was emperor from 14 AD). He was step-son to Octavian, later adopted by Augustus, making him an official ‘Julian’, allowing him to add ‘Julius Caesar’ to his title. Unfortunately, Tiberius was the great-uncle of the infamous Caligula and great-great uncle of Nero.
Militarily, Tiberius was one of Rome’s greatest generals, conquering many northern regions for Rome. He had no real desire to be emperor, and was known to be a recluse, with a dark, sombre character. Pliny the Elder said he was “the gloomiest of men”! In 23 AD his son, Drusus, died, and Tiberius withdrew even more into his own shell. Soon after, in 26 AD, he left Rome to live alone, leaving the rule of Rome to unscrupulous Prefects. Caligula succeeded Tiberius when he died in 37 AD.
When Jesus was growing up, Tiberius was not in charge of Rome and Roman lands. This overall charge was left to Sejanus, who also had authority over the Praetorian Guard. He took on even more power when his wife (Tiberius’ niece) died, purging the Senate and wealthy men of Rome... anyone he thought would oppose his power.
By 30 AD many had died mysteriously. This was a few years before Jesus began His public ministry. By 31 AD, Tiberius had ordered Sejanus to trial, and he was promptly executed. Other trials and investigations ensued, as Tiberius suddenly took control.
According to Tacitus, Tiberius was, by now, a tyrannical ruler, as if making-up for his many years in seclusion. Modern historians refute this, but it is difficult to know the truth from a distance of 2000 years... including stories of supposed sexual perversity, cruelty, and paranoia, which Romans had come to believe. He died about the year, or soon after, Jesus began to preach (depending on Christ’s birth date).
Many Jews moved to Rome and began to draw Romans to their religion. As a result the paranoid Tiberius either took male Jews into the Roman army or banished them (or be enslaved). Tertullian wrote that Tiberius, a few years after Jesus’ crucifixion, asked the Senate to recognise Christianity.
John seems to have started his ministry in 29 AD (?), roughly about 6 years before Jesus began to speak. This is a reasonable time for him to move around the country and gain in influence... though such a postulate cannot be proved.
Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, and was fifth Prefect (the role of which can be extremely varied) from 26 AD-36 AD. He was of noble birth*, but was recalled to Rome for dealing harshly with a Samaritan uprising in 37 AD... and yet he was reluctant to send Jesus to His death. He was responsible for imperial tax collections in Judaea – which is why Jesus’ accusers trumped-up a charge of trying to cause tax-evasion, an offence that brought a death penalty. (*There were two major higher classes in Rome – equestrian and patrician. The former is lower).
When he ordered a sign to be placed above Jesus’ head on the cross, the chief priests objected, saying the sign should have the word ‘claims to be... king of the Jews.’ But, Pilate replied “What I have written, I have written”. The sign was not put there as abuse or as sarcasm, but was a simple statement of the charge made against Him.
Luke makes several other details available, too: “Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene”. The Herod in this text is Herod Antipater/Antipas [the latter being a nickname] (20 BC-40 AD). A tetrarch was a ‘ruler of a quarter’. He ruled a part of Herod the Great’s territory on behalf of Rome. The city he built and named in honour of Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee, later became a centre for learning for rabbis.
He famously divorced his wife so as to marry his brother’s wife, Herodius. His killing of John the Baptist was later rewarded in kind, when his nephew, Agrippa 1, accused him of conspiracy against Emperor Caligula, resulting in his exile in Gaul, with Herodius. They both died there.
Philip was tetrarch of Ituraea and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene. We will not look at these two, because their names are incidental to the main account. (Philip married Herodius’ niece, Salome, whose vindictive mind led to John the Baptist’s death). Lysanias made tetrarch in 29 AD.
We have more historical data – “Annas and Caiaphas” were the high priests at the time. Annas became high priest by order of Quirinius, in 6 or 7 AD. He was quickly deposed soon after, but remained very influential. Similarly, Caiaphas was appointed by Valerius Gratus in 18 AD but deposed in 36 AD.
So, it is likely that the active high priest at the time of Jesus’ earlier preaching was Jonathan, brother-in-law of Caiaphas. Note that even after retirement or being deposed, high priests kept their title, so there could be several ‘high priests’ at any one time.
Luke thus gives us a very accurate and detailed background to the coming of John the Baptist. We see that John was already living in the desert, learning from the Lord, when God called him to begin his vital ministry. maybe several years before Christ started to speak. “The word of God came...”. This means that God gave him instructions, ‘word’ being rhema – the utterance of the living God. Very often, God speaks to men who are already preparing to receive His word. Their minds and hearts comply with His word even before God acts upon them.
John, then, was already in a place where God wanted Him; he was now ready for the task he was born for; his life began moving in God’s direction well before his ministry even started, and this is really how every Christian ought to be – we should not wait until God calls us specifically; we should begin a godly life and live it until the specific command comes. There is, then, no need to ask “How do I know what God wants me to do?” We must begin with what we know, from scripture!
And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins;
As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth;
And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
John went about preaching throughout Jordan, calling on the Jews to repent so that God could forgive them their sins. This was how God always called His chosen people, and John’s ministry was still of Old Testament type. He was not calling on men to ‘believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved’. Jesus would make that call! It was John’s work to call people to repent, in readiness for the ministry of Jesus.
The prophecy quoted from Isaiah is perfect in every way; John fulfilled it to the letter by going about the whole country revitalising the faith of every Jew. Then, in a short while, the One Who John spoke of would arrive and “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” The ‘salvation of God’ refers to the actual salvation that would come through the Son of God. “All flesh” firstly applies to Jews, but also to Gentiles. The duplicitous chief priests and Sanhedrin could accept John’s preaching, because it was prophetic... but they could not tolerate it when the Messiah actually arrived, because His presence endangered their incomes and status!
Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.
And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
John’s first words to the crowds who came to him were not comforting, nor was he trying to be ‘balanced’ or kind! “O generation of vipers”! Very clearly, John completely contradicts the modern dictum, to offer honey instead of vinegar! Speak gently at all times – because you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar!
This, of course, is bunkum... and Arminian. We must preach and witness as the Holy Spirit prompts, not in carefully devised stage-plays designed by man to catch people with emotional semantics rather than truth. Also note that the vinegar given by John in no uncertain terms (“O generation of vipers”!) resulted not in people turning away, but in their abject desire to know what to do! This is because God was the prompter, not John. He did not devise clever marketing statements to ‘draw them in’. To put it another way, he ‘shot from the hip’ regardless of the human consequences.
I have lost count of the times I have been told (by Arminians) that I am far too tough, and should speak in softer tones. They all think I should spread smarmy honey! But no; I speak as God demands and cannot do anything else. Those who are driven away are those not intended to benefit.
This does not mean I deliberately speak in a tough way. No, I speak as led. With most I speak gently. But, with some, I am compelled to be direct and forceful, not sparing anyone’s emotions or feelings. It depends on how God wishes me to act and speak. John did the same thing.
John began toughly, not sparing feelings! He asked the crowd why they had come to discover the answer to the “wrath to come”. It is possible that John was not just talking about personal salvation, but also about the death of Israel in 70 AD.
John drove at the very heart of Jewish complacency and sin, by warning that simply being born a Jew was not enough for them to warrant God’s love and special help. If He so wished, God could create new Jews by making stones alive! Therefore, John said, show your repentance by your fruits. The fruits would prove the genuineness of their repentance. This also goes for us today. If we are genuine, it will be seen in how we act, speak and think. Behaviour is an indicator of spiritual life.
John went even farther by telling them that God was poised with an axe to cut them down if they did not truly repent and change. A tree that does not bring good fruit is hacked down and burnt. The Jews were ready for such destruction, if they did not listen and repent. And that destruction came in 70 AD.
And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then?
He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.
Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do?
And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you.
And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.
That God was speaking through John is very obvious, made plain by the reaction of the people. Far from being hurt and angry, they were suddenly brought face-to-face with their God, and were afraid. That is to do with the Holy Spirit, not with fine crafting of words and ‘spin’ by a white-suited preacher with a silver tongue!
The people realised the gravity of what John was saying and begged him to tell them what to do. It was what genuine Holy Spirit conviction does to people. They do not get angry – they ask for the solution. John’s answer might perplex modern Christians, but his answer was given directly by the Spirit, so was perfect.
Also, for ancient Jews, what God demanded was repentance followed by a change in behaviour – an outward sign of inner attitude. Thus, John told them to care for each other, to look after those who had nothing. Those who truly look to God tend to be compassionate (not emotional) about others in need.
Publicans – tax-collectors – came to John and asked what THEY should do. It is quite possible they had to pass through a barrage of spitting and hissing. As we saw previously, tax-collectors were hated. Thus, John was direct: only take taxes you must take, and do not defraud the givers.
The soldiers, also Jews, asked a similar question, for their tasks were often violent and against the people. And so John told them not to offer violence that is unjustified, and not to make false accusations to ease their work. They were also told to accept whatever wages they were given. Obviously, this is a little social history note – soldiers had a contention concerning their pay, which was one denarius a day. It was a small coin that was slowly being debased in value over time, so it was like getting an annual pay cut.
And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not;
John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire:
Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable.
And many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people.
John spoke of the coming of the Messiah. His forthright speech and commanding stature caused many to wonder if he was himself the Christ (‘chosen’ or ‘anointed’). Note: ‘Messiah’ is an Old Testament word, meaning, amongst other things, ‘anointed one’, from the root mashach, meaning to anoint or consecrate (found only twice, in Daniel).
Thus, it corresponds with the Greek word, Christ (571 instances in the New Testament), which is the New Testament equivalent. Christos is rooted in chrio, meaning ‘to anoint’. It is the same word used to describe the giving of Holy Spirit gifts to believers.
The definite article (the) is not used in the Septaguint, but is usually found in the New Testament, but not always, as, for example, ho* christos (The Christ). In many instances in the New Testament, the definite article is assumed rather than inserted, so omission of it does not mean it is not there. (*ho is only one form of definite article). This is a standard linguistic activity, so it is not inserted at will by translators.
Wherever it is not included it should be assumed, because that is what biblical logic, and the subject, demands. Thus, if you see ‘Christ’ in a text without the definite article expressly given, it should be inserted anyway, almost as a silent ‘the’.
John came to hear of the comments made about him. He disarmingly told them that he indeed came to baptise them, but the One Who would come after Him was far superior, more mighty. He would baptise them in a different way, with the Holy Ghost and with fire. The word ‘fire’ is used in verse nine for the burning of trees, and verse 17 has a similar meaning. But, when used in this context, of the Holy Ghost, it refers to the holiness of God causing a man to repent.
When compared to the coming One, John said, he was not even good enough to tie up his sandals. With great humility, then, John gave a completely low estimate of himself and pointed everyone towards the One Who was soon to come. This is so very different from modern preachers who draw attention to themselves and their supposed power, enjoying the adulation of their hearers!
As I have noted elsewhere, ‘baptize’ is baptizo. This is important, because so many people argue that baptism does not mean total immersion (hence sprinkling, christening, etc). But, it means to submerge, like a sunken vessel. It CAN mean to wash clean, but not here. However, a third meaning is to overwhelm, which agrees with the idea of being submerged.
It is derived from the word, bapto, which means ‘immersed’, but does not mean the same thing. At times it can mean just to dip, but not when used of people being baptised (translators advise “not to be confused with baptizo”).
As I repeat many times, almost every word in the Bible can have up to dozens of different meanings; the chosen interpretation must fit the context exactly. Also note that John’s baptism is different from Christ’s baptism; the first is only in water, to ritually cleanse, while the second is in the Holy Spirit, water baptism being merely a symbol for what has occurred spiritually.
John’s baptism became defunct as soon as Christ gave the Holy Spirit, because John’s baptism pointed people towards the Christ. Once He came there was no need for the Old Testament ritual.
Most people confuse (without realising it) bapto with baptizo. To quote the historical difference – both words were used by the Greek physician, Nicander, when describing the making of pickles. He said that a vegetable must first be quickly ‘dipped’ (bapto) into boiling water, before it is immersed or baptised (baptizo) in vinegar for a length of time.
Thus, the first is just a temporary dipping while the second is a longer act of total immersion, producing a permanent change. Obviously, this can only be indicative of the different ways to view baptism as an act. It does not, though, mean full baptism is the agent of change within a person. Rather, full baptism is only the sign to others that change has already taken place. Like all analogies, that of pickling vegetables has its limits, though it does perfectly describe the action of baptism.
John went on to say that when the Christ came He would “purge his floor” with a “fan in his hand”. That is, He would, like a man sorting wheat from chaff, create a wind by fanning the grains. The useless and worthless chaff would rise in the air and separate from the wheat. It would be wafted away from the grains. The wheat would be kept safe in the grain-shed, but the chaff would be burnt to nothing by a fire that never goes out. This was a fearsome picture to give to the Jews, and it should be just as fearsome for us today!
It did not end there, for John preached intensely to everyone for several years before Christ came to preach. What we have in print is but a summary of some of his words.
But Herod the tetrarch, being reproved by him for Herodias his brother Philip's wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done,
Added yet this above all, that he shut up John in prison.
Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened,
And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.
Like any true man of God, John got himself into serious trouble with authorities. Part of John’s preaching was rebuke for those who did not live a clean and holy life. One of those he spoke against was Herod the tetrarch, for adulterously marrying his brother’s wife, and for many evils he had committed. We should bear in mind that John was not saying anything that was unknown to the people. Rather, Herod’s sins were well-known to the Jews, and this is why John spoke out against him. As a Jewish king, he should have been an example of piety to the people. This action by John (and Jesus) eradicates the modern view that we must always speak well of our rulers, and not rebuke them!
Rulers MUST obey God, or at least live above public suspicion. By openly sinning, they poured scorn on the will of God and on morality. This is why John had to speak out... as should any preacher of today. Unfortunately, most prefer their incomes and peace, so they never speak out against a prevailing evil. Herod had John arrested and put into a dungeon. But, as we read in other records, Herod did not himself want this to happen; it was the wish of his wife, who hated John.
Before John was arrested, Jesus came to him to be baptised. As He was being baptised He prayed to the Father, and the Holy Ghost descended from the sky in the shape of a dove, symbol of peace and purity. It is not unusual for the Spirit to come in a variant shape. Later, He came as flames of fire on the heads of the disciples at Pentecost.
When the dove sat on Jesus, the Father spoke from Heaven, saying “Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased”. Jesus was to begin His very brief preaching on this earth, and would die at the hands of wicked men... yet it was known to Him and He came anyway.
And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli,
Which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi, which was the son of Melchi, which was the son of Janna, which was the son of Joseph,
Which was the son of Mattathias, which was the son of Amos, which was the son of Naum, which was the son of Esli, which was the son of Nagge,
Which was the son of Maath, which was the son of Mattathias, which was the son of Semei, which was the son of Joseph, which was the son of Juda,
Which was the son of Joanna, which was the son of Rhesa, which was the son of Zorobabel, which was the son of Salathiel, which was the son of Neri,
Which was the son of Melchi, which was the son of Addi, which was the son of Cosam, which was the son of Elmodam, which was the son of Er,
Which was the son of Jose, which was the son of Eliezer, which was the son of Jorim, which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi,
Which was the son of Simeon, which was the son of Juda, which was the son of Joseph, which was the son of Jonan, which was the son of Eliakim,
Which was the son of Melea, which was the son of Menan, which was the son of Mattatha, which was the son of Nathan, which was the son of David,
Which was the son of Jesse, which was the son of Obed, which was the son of Booz, which was the son of Salmon, which was the son of Naasson,
Which was the son of Aminadab, which was the son of Aram, which was the son of Esrom, which was the son of Phares, which was the son of Juda,
Which was the son of Jacob, which was the son of Isaac, which was the son of Abraham, which was the son of Thara, which was the son of Nachor,
Which was the son of Saruch, which was the son of Ragau, which was the son of Phalec, which was the son of Heber, which was the son of Sala,
Which was the son of Cainan, which was the son of Arphaxad, which was the son of Sem, which was the son of Noe, which was the son of Lamech,
Which was the son of Mathusala, which was the son of Enoch, which was the son of Jared, which was the son of Maleleel, which was the son of Cainan,
Which was the son of Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.
In this section, for the sake of brevity, we will treat all the genealogical material as one group, because its purpose is to prove Jesus’ earthly lineage. More detailed examination can be left to a separate study.
We are told that at this time Jesus was “about thirty”. Why wait until that age? Because preachers in Judaism did not begin until they were mature – otherwise the people would consider them to be inexperienced. Note the telling words concerning his earthly parentage: His parents were Joseph and Mary “as was supposed”. This is a simple acknowledgement that this is how people saw Joseph and Mary, though neither was Jesus’ true parent – His true parent was Himself, God.
Even so, Jesus was born a baby so that He could have royal lineage to David, as prophesied. Hence, we now have a long list of names, showing how Joseph’s father was Heli (or Eli), and Heli was the son of Matthat, and so on. For our purposes there is no need to examine every parent in the list.
The importance of it is to prove that Jesus was born into David’s family, and so prophecy was fulfilled. Note as you read through the names, that we come across famed people, such as Nathan, son of David, David himself, Jacob, Isaac, Noah, Lamech, Enoch, right back to Adam. Thus, not only was Jesus descended humanly from David, but He truly was the ‘second Adam’.
Note that Adam is here referred to as the ‘son of God’. It is more correct to say “Adam, which was of God”. The words ‘the son’ were added for fluency by the translators, just as I could be called the ‘son’ of my great-great grandfather; a descendant. Yet, Adam was a ‘son of God’ in a certain sense, as the firstborn of all humans. You will note that in verse 22, Jesus is given the relationship of ‘Son’, with a capital ‘S’, denoting His divine nature. In verse 38, ‘son’ is of human origin, and thus of a lower order of beings, not divine; and so a lower-case ‘s’ is used.
© July 2012