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Luke 3:1-6 Biblical Commentary:
LUKE 3:1-2. TIBERIUS, PILATE, HEROD, ETC.
1Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch (Greek: tetraarchountos—tetrarch) of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch (Greek: tetraarchountos—tetrarch) of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch(Greek: tetraarchountos—tetrarch) of Abilene, 2in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness.
“Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar” (v. 1a). Luke, the historian, sets the ministry of John the Baptist in historical context. In similar fashion, he said, “There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias” (1:5)—and he also referenced the time of Jesus’ birth by mentioning Augustus and Quirinius (2:1-2).
Because verse 1 sounds like a beginning, some have suggested that chapter 3 is the original beginning of this Gospel, but there is no convincing evidence for that. Instead, chapters 1-2 give us infancy and boyhood accounts, while chapter 3 begins the ministry of John—including the baptism of Jesus.
In verse 1, Luke introduces four men who will play significant roles in Jesus’ crucifixion: Pontius Pilate, Herod, Annas, and Caiaphas. It also introduces three officials—Tiberius, Philip, and Lysanias—who serve only to date the beginning of John’s ministry.
The “fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar” provides the most exact clue to the beginning date of John’s ministry, but it is imprecise. Tiberius became co-regent with his father, Augustus, in 11 or 12 A.D., and assumed full power on his father’s death in 14 A.D. We don’t know whether the “fifteenth year” dates back to the earlier or the later date. Therefore, the word of the Lord may have come to John (v. 2) as early as 26 A.D. or as late as 29 A.D. If we assume that Jesus was born in 4 B.C., he would be 30-33 years old as he begins his ministry.
It is probable that “A.D. 26/27 was a Jubilee year (i.e., every fiftieth year when debts were canceled; see Lev. 25:10)” (Evans, 50). In a Jubilee year, God required people who bought land to return it to original owner (Leviticus 25:23, 27 ff.)—and also required that people bound to servitude be freed (Leviticus 25:41). It is very possible that Jesus would choose to begin his ministry in such a year.
“Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea” (v. 1b). Pontius Pilate served as procurator of Judea from 26-36 A.D.
“and Herod being tetrarch (tetraarchountos—tetrarch) of Galilee” (v. 1c). The Herod mentioned here is Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, who ruled Galilee and Perea from 4 B.C. to 39 A.D. With two exceptions (Matthew 2:1-19 and Luke 1:5, which tell of Herod the Great), Antipas is the Herod mentioned in the Gospels.
Following the death of Herod the Great, Rome divided his territory into three parts and appointed his three sons as rulers over those areas. They appointed Archelaus ethnarch (a title lower than king and higher than tetrarch) over Judea. Antipas and Philip were appointed tetrarchs over their respective areas. Tetrarch originally meant “ruler over a fourth part,” but by this time it is used more loosely, designating a relatively minor ruler when compared with those whom Rome designated as kings. In 6 A.D., Rome deposed Archelaus, who had proven himself too brutal to reign capably. From that point, Rome appointed Roman governors to govern Judea. Pilate is the fifth of these governors.
“and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis” (v. 1d). Philip reigned over these relatively minor regions from 4 B.C. to 34 A.D. Ituraea and Trachonitis are located east of the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee—east of Galilee, where Antipas reigns and south of Abilene, where Lysanias reigns. We will hear of Philip again when John the Baptist criticizes Antipas for marrying Herodias, Philip’s wife (Philip is Antipas’ brother), and Antipas has John arrested (Mark 6:17-18).
“and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene” (v. 1e). Abilene is located northeast of Galilee and northwest of Damascus. For quite some time, we knew nothing of Lysanias, except for Luke’s mention of him. More recently, an inscription was found in Abila, capital of Abilene (east of Damascus), mentioning him—thus verifying Luke’s account (Myers, 670-671).
“in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” (v. 2a). Luke mentions Annas and Caiaphas as if there are two high priests—but, in fact, there is only one official high priest. Annas served as high priest from 6-15 A.D. before being deposed by the procurator of Judea. He continues to have considerable influence, and people still refer to him as high priest, in much the same way that we might call a former president “Mr. President.” Five of Annas’ sons will become high priests, and his son-in-law, Caiaphas, is the current high priest, having been appointed in 18 A.D.
“the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness” (v. 2b). This language is reminiscent of the calls of Old Testament prophets (Isaiah 38:4; Jeremiah 1:1-2; 13:3). The mention of Zechariah reminds us of the miracle of John’s birth to his aged parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah (1:5-25; 57-80) and the angel Gabriel’s announcement that John “will be great in the sight of the Lord” (1:15). John will be a great prophet, but only because he has received the word of God.
“the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness.” Luke has just spoken of Emperor Tiberius, the most powerful man in the world, and has named six other important political and religious figures. The word of God, however, did not come to Emperor Tiberius. Nor did it come, as would seem likely, to Caiaphas, the only priest privileged to enter into the presence of God in the Holy of Holies. Instead the word of God came to John, a man whose only distinction is that the word of God has come to him. This happened, not in Rome or Jerusalem or the temple, but in the wilderness. In the Magnificat, Mary said, “He has put down princes from their thrones. And has exalted the lowly” (1:52). That is surely the case here.
It is worth noting that the seven VIPs mentioned in these verses are remembered today primarily because of their mention in the Gospels. We might think of Tiberius as an exception, because he has a secure place in secular history. However, most people who have heard of Tiberius today know him only because he is mentioned in Luke’s Gospel.
We are reminded again and again that God chooses unlikely people. Someone has said, “How odd of God to choose the Jews!” It was odd of God to choose David, a young lad whose father did not even include him among the sons whom he presented to Samuel for consideration! How odd of God to choose Mary, a young unmarried girl! How odd of God to choose John! Those of us in ministry wonder at our calling. We also wonder at the laypeople who do most of the work in most churches. God has, indeed, “exalted the lowly.”
The wilderness also seems an unlikely place for the word of God. Why not Jerusalem? Not only is the temple there, but also its people need someone to spur them to repentance. The wilderness is largely unpopulated—John’s proclamation will be unheard unless people travel there to hear him. However, throughout Israel’s history, the wilderness has been a place where God has shaped his people. It is the place where the nation Israel was forged. Prophets did much of their work in the wilderness. Jesus will soon be tested in the wilderness.
God continues to work in the wilderness of our lives today. We are most open to hearing God’s word when life seems most barren.
LUKE 3:3. THE BAPTISM OF REPENTANCE FOR REMISSION OF SINS
3He came into all the region around the Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance (Greek:metanoias) for remission of sins.
“preaching the baptism of repentance (Greek: metanoias) for remission of sins.” The Jews are familiar with baptism, because they require Gentiles who would become Jews to undergo a proselyte baptism to cleanse them of their sins. However, John’s baptism is not a proselyte baptism. Instead, he requires Jews to repent (metanoias) and baptizes them for the forgiveness of sins—a concept quite unusual among the Jews—thus fulfilling the angel’s prophecy that John will “give knowledge of salvation to his people by the remission of their sins” (1:77).
John spells out the ethical requirements of repentance. It requires bearing fruit worthy of repentance (3:8) and sharing with those in need (3:11). When tax collectors and soldiers ask what they should do, John tells them to deal honestly with people and not to use their power in abusive ways (3:13-14).
If Advent is a time of preparation for the Lord so that “All flesh will see God’s salvation” (v. 6), we find here in verse 3 the way to prepare—bearing fruit worthy of repentance—sharing with those in need—dealing with people honestly—using power justly.
Metanoias involves changing one’s mind—turning around—proceeding in a new direction. Earlier, the angel told Zechariah that John would “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord, their God” (1:16). This emphasis on turning is reinforced in Acts 3:19: “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out.” This repentance requires a change of direction—a turning from worldly compulsions to Godly affections.
The reward of repentance is “remission (aphesis) of sins”—not only forgiveness, but also a release from sin’s throttle-grip—freedom from the compulsions and addictions and habits that threaten to undo us.
John is calling for repentance at both the personal and national level, because without it Israel is headed for destruction (Tannehill, 78).
At the close of this Gospel, Jesus will re-emphasize repentance and forgiveness: “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (24:46-47). Peter will make the same emphasis at Pentecost—”Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38).
This is at the heart of our message yet today. People still need forgiveness, and God still forgives. Sometimes we are tempted to gloss over the reality of sin and to emphasize only forgiveness. To mention sin seems somehow unenlightened or judgmental. That, however, is faithful neither to the scriptures nor to people’s spiritual needs. People know that they are sinners. They are relieved when we deal seriously with their sins, because they can then believe that there is a serious possibility of forgiveness.
Furthermore, it is illogical to speak of forgiveness without speaking first of sin. If there is no sin, there is no need of forgiveness.
LUKE 3:4-6. ALL FLESH WILL SEE GOD’S SALVATION
4As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
‘Make ready the way of the Lord.
Make his paths straight.
5Every valley will be filled.
Every mountain and hill will be brought low.
The crooked will become straight,
and the rough ways smooth.
6All flesh will see God’s salvation.'”
“As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet” (v. 4a). The quotation is from Isaiah 40:3-5, where the prophet calls people to prepare for the Lord’s visitation.
In its original context, Isaiah called people to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” John amends that to “make his paths straight” (v. 4).
Just as Israel needed repentance, we, too, need to prepare our hearts to receive the Lord—and to help our families and friends to prepare their hearts as well.
“Make ready the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight” (v. 4c). When a king plans to travel, work crews repair the roads in advance of his travel—make them straight, level, and smooth. John calls us to repent as the way of preparing our hearts for the Lord’s visit.
In its original Old Testament context, this verse held out the promise of Yahweh’s return to a people who had felt abandoned by Yahweh—the Jewish exiles. In the New Testament context, it is a call to prepare the way for the messiah’s coming. The crooked paths in need of straightening are those not in accord with God’s will.
When John calls Israel (and us) to make the Lord’s paths straight, he is telling us to remove any obstacles that stand in the way of the Lord taking his rightful throne. What kind of obstacles might those be? They could be the old-favorite sins—the misuse of sex, money, alcohol and drugs, power, etc. They most likely involve withholding of a piece of ourselves from obedience to the Lord’s will. They could involve the prince of temptations—pride, to include the spiritual pride that leads to self-righteousness.
“Every valley will be filled” (v. 5a). John makes it clear that it is our repentance that prepares the Lord’s way—that fills the valleys and levels the mountains.
“Every mountain and hill will be brought low” (v. 5b). In our day, we are accustomed to great machines leveling high places and using the earth from the high places to fill the low places. We have lost our sense of wonder at being able to cross mountain ranges on highways that are largely straight and level. But our ancestors, who crossed the same mountains the old-fashioned way, would be astonished. So also, it would have been astonishing in Isaiah’s and John’s generations to imagine mountains being made low and valleys being filled. This is poetic language that conveys the thought of people making an extraordinary effort to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming.
“The crooked will become straight” (v. 5c). “This may be an allusion to the ‘corrupt generation’ (literally crooked) of Acts 2:40 (cf. also Luke 13:11-13)” (Stein, 129).
In our churches, we must take care lest we give people the impression that the most important work of the church is meeting a budget, constructing a building, or developing a program. Those are worthy goals and easily measured, but our real goal is to prepare hearts to receive the Lord—a difficult goal to measure. As we build buildings and implement programs, we must remember that the really important work of the church takes place at this less visible, less measurable, level—and that it is the work of the Spirit. We contribute to the Spirit’s work in many ways—especially by prayer and by preparing our hearts to receive the Lord.
“All flesh will see God’s salvation” (v. 6). Luke is a Gentile, the only Gentile to author a New Testament book. In Luke and Acts, he makes frequent positive references to Gentiles. He does not include parallels to Matthew 10:5 and 15:24, which exclude Gentiles. He makes it clear that Christ has eliminated barriers to the salvation of all people. That might seem like a dead issue today, because the church has included Gentiles for twenty centuries. However, we live in a highly polarized world in which people are still divided by race, tribal and national origins, religion, education, politics, and wealth. People need to hear that God calls all people—in every land—of every race—of every persuasion. Nobody is excluded. The call is that we might repent and receive forgiveness of sins.
Neither Mark nor Matthew includes this allusion to Isaiah 40:5b—”and all flesh shall see (the glory of the Lord) together”—which Luke modifies to say “and all flesh will see God’s salvation” (v. 6).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible, The Gospel of Luke (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1953)
Bock, Darrell L., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Luke, Vol, 3 (Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1994)
Borg, Marcus J., Lectionary Bible Studies: The Year of Luke: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Study Book (Minneapolis & Philadelphia: Augsburg Publishing House and Fortress Press, 1976)
Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Craddock, Fred B., Interpretation: Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press (1990)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Culpepper, R. Alan, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Evans, Craig A., New International Biblical Commentary: Luke (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1990)
Fitzmyer, Joseph A., S.J., The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke I-IX (New York: Doubleday, 1970)
Gilmour, S. MacLean & Bowie, Walter Russell, The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8. (Nashville: Abingdon , 1952)
Green, Joel B., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)
Hendriksen, William, New Testament Commentary: Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978)
Johnson, Luke Timothy, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991)
Klein, Leonard R. in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (GrandRapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1987)
Nolland, John, Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 1—9:20, Vol. 35A (Dallas: Word Books, 1989)
Ringe, Sharon H., Westminster Bible Companion, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)
Stein, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Luke (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Tannehill, Robert C., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996)
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