3 Our story continues 15 years after Tiberius Caesar had begun his reign over the empire. Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod ruled Galilee, his brother Philip ruled Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruled Abilene.
More than any other Gospel writer, Luke wants to situate the story of Jesus in secular history. In particular, he gives details of the emperor, governor, and other client rulers. With a toxic mixture of cruelty and might, these authorities lord their power over the common people. Yet these high and mighty are—as Mary’s poem describes—destined to be brought down in the presence of a new kind of king and a new kind of kingdom. Jesus will exercise His authority in a radically different way—not through domination and violence, but through love, healing, compassion, and service.
John’s father Zacharias is a priest who serves in Jerusalem at the temple. Among their other duties, priests perform ritual cleansings necessary for Jewish worshipers who become ceremonially unclean—perhaps through contact with outsiders (non-Jewish people), perhaps through contact with blood or a dead body, perhaps through a physical illness. But when John appears on the scene, he hasn’t followed in his father’s footsteps. He’s not fulfilling the role of the priest, but rather of the prophet. He works far outside of Jerusalem, and he baptizes people in the Jordan River, not near the temple. It’s as if John is performing a symbolic drama: If you want to be in tune with God, the temple and its normal routines can’t help you anymore. Instead of being cleansed there, you should come out to this radical preacher and let him cleanse you in the river. And his message isn’t a polite, tame message. It’s fiery and intense! God isn’t interested in just routine religion. He wants changed lives!
2 In Jerusalem Annas and Caiaphas were high priests in the temple. And in those days, out in the wilderness, John (son of Zacharias) received a message from God.
3 John brought this divine message to all those who came to the Jordan River. He preached that people should be ritually cleansed through baptism as an expression of changed lives for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As Isaiah the prophet had said,
A solitary voice is calling:
“Go into the wilderness;
prepare the road for the Eternal One’s journey.
In the desert, repair and straighten
every mile of our True God’s highway.
5 Every low place will be lifted
and every high mountain,
every hill will be humbled;
The crooked road will be straightened out
and rough places ironed out smooth;
6 Then the radiant glory of the Eternal One will be revealed.
All flesh together will take it in.”[a]
7 In fulfillment of those words, crowds streamed out from the villages and towns to be baptized[b] by John at the Jordan.
John the Baptist: You bunch of venomous snakes! Who told you that you could escape God’s coming wrath? 8 Don’t just talk of turning to God; you’d better bear the authentic fruit of a changed life. Don’t take pride in your religious heritage, saying, “We have Abraham for our father!” Listen—God could turn these rocks into children of Abraham!
9 God wants you to bear fruit! If you don’t produce good fruit, then you’ll be chopped down like a fruitless tree and made into firewood. God’s ax is taking aim and ready to swing!
People: 10 What shall we do to perform works from changed lives?
John the Baptist: 11 The person who has two shirts must share with the person who has none. And the person with food must share with the one in need.
12 Some tax collectors were among those in the crowd seeking baptism.[c]
Tax Collectors: Teacher, what kind of fruit is God looking for from us?
John the Baptist: 13 Stop overcharging people. Only collect what you must turn over to the Romans.
Soldiers: 14 What about us? What should we do to show true change?
John the Baptist: Don’t extort money from people by throwing around your power or making false accusations, and be content with your pay.
15 John’s bold message seized public attention, and many began wondering if John might himself be the Anointed One promised by God.
John the Baptist: 16 I baptize[d] you with water, but One is coming—One far more powerful than I, One whose sandals I am not worthy to untie—who will baptize[e] you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17 He is coming like a farmer at harvesttime, tools in hand to separate the wheat from the chaff. He will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire, and He will gather the genuine wheat into His barn.