Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee…
We left Jesus, when last we studied Luke's narrative, in Nazareth, subject to his parents and realizing a gracious development in subjection. We have now to pass over about eighteen years, of which we know only that during them he had become a carpenter (cf. Mark 6:3), that we may contemplate the preparatory movement under John the Baptist. In these verses we find Luke entering upon the description with the hand of a true artist. He summarizes for us a whole life in fewer verses a great deal than it had years. And yet they are so deftly written that, had John Baptist no other memorial, they would secure for him undying fame. Let us take the facts as they are put before us by Luke, noting such lessons as they are well fitted to suggest. And -
I. THE BAPTIST APPEARED WHEN DECAY HAD SET IN BOTH IN CHURCH AND STATE. (Vers. 1, 2.) The Jewish kingdom, which had a unity until the death of Herod the Great, has now been parcelled into tetrarchies, each governor reigning by grace of the Roman emperor. The scepter is assuredly departing from Judah. The ancient glory of the Israelitish monarchy only makes the present decline the more impressive. The kingdom needs resuscitation or to be supplanted by a better kingdom. A national leader was never more needful than now. The fullness of time has surely come. Again, decay has seized upon the Jewish Church. The singular number used here (ἀρχιερέως) while two names are associated with the high priesthood, shows to what a condition the affairs of the Church had come. Annas is not allowed his lifetime of the office, according to the Law of Moses, but Caiaphas, his son-in-law happily, has been appointed by the civil power in his room. Reformation is, therefore, sadly needed; the hour has struck, and happily the man is here.
II. THE BAPTIST CAME AS THE PIONEER OF THE LORD. (Vers. 3-6.) Luke here borrows imagery from the prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3-5), and a careful study of the passage endorses the application of it to the preparatory work in view of the advent of Messiah. John, like a pioneer, is to make a smooth path for the Prince of Peace; but the valleys to be raised, the mountains to be laid low, the crooked to be made straight, and the rough ways to be made smooth, are not outward and physical obstacles. It is not by force they are to be overcome, but by a voice, by a cry. They represent consequently the characters of men. The valleys represent the depressed and despairing; the mountains, the exalted and proud; the crooked, the tortuous in sin; the rough ways, the rugged and uncouth in nature. All these classes, through John's preaching, are to be prepared for a sight of God's salvation in the Person of Messiah. How, then, did John try to prepare his generation for Jesus? By "preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins." Now, this new rite introduced by John (cf. Godet, in loc.) was a tremendous indictment, so to speak, against human nature. It was as much as to say to every man, "You need to be washed, entirely washed; you are so defiled, you are sinners against God to such a degree that you must be not only washed and purified, but also pardoned, before you can take your places in the kingdom of Messiah." It was the proclamation to all his contemporaries that the one reformation needed in order to better times was self-reformation - reformation beginning at home in one's own bosom by the grace of God, as the most important preliminary to the reformation of the world. Repentance has been well defined as a taking of God's side against ourselves; and this was the spirit of John's reformation. It was a call to arms, but to arms against self, not against one's neighbors. And it is here that every true reformer must begin. We must reform ourselves first by the grace of God, or we shall be quite unequal to any large reformation in the world.
III. THE BAPTIST'S PREACHING WAS EXCEEDINGLY PLAIN AND PRACTICAL. (Vers. 7-9.) Luke here gives a resume of John's discourses. They were not certainly very conciliatory. They did not mince matters. The vast multitude which came to hear him was, he knew, largely of the Pharisaic class. They were proud to be children of Abraham according to the flesh. They fancied this was sufficient to secure their acceptance with God. But in spite of their good pedigree they were venomous at heart, would sting a neighbor like a viper, and do the most unbrotherly things. Hence, as a faithful messenger from God, John tells his hearers what they are - but "a generation of vipers." He asks them further who has warned them to flee from "the wrath to come," that is, the judgments of Messiah? He exhorts them in such circumstances to put away their fancied merit as children of Abraham, and to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance, for in case they did not do so, they would be cut down and cast into the fire. The "fruits" demanded were not, of course, graces of the Spirit, which they could not of themselves produce; but acts of reparation, of justice, and such like, which were fitted to show the better view they were taking of their previous life, and the amends it demanded at their hands. If sorrow for sin is genuine with us, it will work a reformation immediately in our conduct; we shall not do the old hard-hearted things we once were guilty of. Now, John, in thus dealing with the question of human nature and its depravity, is an example to all our reformers. It is here that reformation is required, and the philosophy that fails here has no pretensions to the leadership of the world. No wonder, therefore, that "pessimism "hangs like a nightmare on the boasted philosophy of the time, and men by philosophy alone cannot get rid of it.
IV. THE PRACTICAL ADVICE GIVEN TO DIFFERENT CLASSES BY JOHN. (Vers. 10-14.) The real success of preaching is proved by inquirers. When people begin to ask what they must do, the message has begun to tell. Now, different classes became inquirers. They were from the lower ranks of the people. The Pharisees largely declined baptism, as Luke 7:30 shows. And:
1. The common people asked John's advice as to what they should do. He tells them to be brotherly instead of grasping. He preached "fraternity." He that had a second coat, or some meat to spare, would do well to impart to a needy brother. Cooperation in the battle of life is our first duty.
2. The taxgatherers ask what they should do. John tells them to avoid their easily besetting sin of extortion. In fact, here, as always, the gospel begins by antagonizing man's selfish impulses.
3. The soldiers also ask his advice. These are believed to have been soldiers on the march to a war in Arabia Petraea on behalf of Herod Antipas, and to have been caught at the fords of the Jordan by the wave of religious excitement which was surging there. The brave Baptist advises them to avoid
(2) perjury, and
(3) grumbling about better wages.
He thus sets each class to fight against its easily besetting sins.
V. THE BAPTIST'S MISSION WAS BUT A PROMISE OF A BETTER BAPTISM, (Vers. 15-18.) When John's preaching had proved so successful, the people began to wonder if he were not Messiah himself; and then it was that he declined leadership and spoke of a greater Leader and a far more important baptism. So great was his successor to be, that John was not worthy to unloose his shoe-latchet; and he was to have the grand prerogative of baptizing the people with the Holy Ghost and with fire, or, as it perhaps had better be, "in the Holy Ghost and fire (ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρί)." The Spirit is an Agent, not a means, as water is; and his agency has all the purifying and sublimating effect of fire, rendering those on whom he descends pure and ardent in the service of the Lord. This baptism of the Spirit is what characterizes the dispensation of Messiah. But Messiah will exercise authority and execute judgment, as well as baptize with fire. He will separate by his doctrine, which is his fan, the wheat from the chaff; and those who demonstrate their worthlessness by rejecting the gospel, will be consigned by him to fire unquenchable. If we will not accept of fire as purification, we shall receive it in another form as fire of judgment (cf. Godet, in loc.). Hence the solemn alternative which Jesus sets before us in his gospel.
VI. THE REWARD THE WORLD GIVES ITS SPIRITUAL HEROES. (Vers. 19, 20.) It has been supposed that John accepted a crafty invitation from Herod Antipas to come to his court. The last act in the tragedy of his life is when he appears before us as a courageous "court-preacher." Here the Baptist would not take things easily, as courtiers do, but denounced the infamy of the monarch. His reward is a dungeon. The finale is his murder. So has the world rewarded its spiritual heroes. It has nothing better for the noblest than a castle-dungeon and a headsman's sword. This shadow is inserted in Luke's history by anticipation. But there is artistic power in so inserting it. It completes the picture of a great ministry. The forerunner of Messiah has not a much better fate than Messiah himself. The age of heroes is beginning in the person of John, the heroes who had heart to die for truth. Their blood is truth's most precious seed, and the gospel which can command "the noble army of martyrs" is destined to endure! - R.M.E.
Parallel VersesKJV: 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,
WEB: Now 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,