John Begins Preaching (Matthew 3:1-4; Mark 1:1-6; Luke 3:1-6)
Luke once again gives us details as to precisely when the next set of events take place. Caesar Augustus has died and Tiberius Caesar has been ruling for fifteen years. Tiberius began reigning as Caesar on August 19, A.D. 14 after the death of Augustus. Though this should give us a precise date, we run into difficulties. Tiberius was named Augustus’ successor in A.D. 4 and held power in government. In A.D. 13 his powers were increase to being equal to Augustus’ power. Thus by Luke’s account the year could be A.D. 18, A.D. 27, or A.D. 28 depending on what was considered the start of Tiberius’ reign.
Herod’s kingdom was divided into four regions (tetrarches) upon his death. Herod Antipas ruled in Galilee, Herod Philip ruled in Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruled in Abilene. Antipas ruled Galilee until he was removed by Caligula, the successor of Tiberius (Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII:8:2). According to Josephus, Philip the brother of Herod died in the twentieth year of Tiberius, after he had governed Trachonitis, Batanea, and Gaulonitis thirty-seven years (Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII:5:6). Lysanius is also mentioned by Josephus as ruling Abilene until Emperor Claudius took it from him in A.D. 42 and presented Abilene to Agrippa (Antiquities of the Jews, XIX:5:1).
The fourth region, Judea was given to Herod’s son Archelaus, but he was removed from his office after nine years because of the crimes he committed. Judea then became a Roman province ran by a Roman governor. Luke tells us that Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. His rule of Judea is dated from A.D. 26 to A.D. 36.
Adding all these points together, the date is somewhere between A.D. 26 and A.D. 28, or roughly thirty years after the birth of John.
Another point of historical interest is that during this time there were two high priests, Annas and Caiaphas. Annas was appointed high priest in A.D. 7 by Quirinius and removed in A.D. 15 by Valerius Gratus. However, Annas was an adroit politician, managing to get five of his sons and his son-in-law, Caiaphas, appointed as high priest during the years following. Caiaphas was appointed as high priest from A.D. 18 to 36. Despite the official position, it appears that Annas continued to hold power though he was not acknowledged by Rome. John 11:49, 51 and 18:13 mention that Caiaphas was “high priest that year” leaving the impression that Annas and Caiaphas either alternated terms or John was commenting that the high priesthood shifted so often that during the notable year of Christ’s death, Caiaphas was holding the office that year.. The problem arises from the fact that under Jewish law a high priest is a life-time appointment. The Gentile rulers made havoc with the system by replacing the high priests as they saw fit. Most likely from the Jewish view, Annas should be the high priest until his death, but they tolerated the Roman appointment of another high priest.
Matthew and Mark mention that John made for a colorful character. He wore a garment made of camel’s hair, which is a course hair and considered to be a low quality garment. He also ate locusts and wild honey, which also indicates an austere life. Yet there is more to it than simple frugal living. It appears that God’s prophets in the past wore course hair garments (Zechariah 13:4). The prophet Elijah was noted for his leather belt (II Kings 1:8).. While we might turn up our noses at a meal of locust, it was allowed food for an Israelite (Leviticus 11:22). It is likely that the garb and plain lifestyle were to invoke memories of Elijah (Malachi 4:5).
The Preaching of John (Matthew 3:5-10; Luke 3:7-14)
At this time, we find John preaching in the wilderness region around the Jordan. His message was one calling for Israel to repent of their sins in preparation for the Messiah’s coming and the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. The use of the phrase “is at hand” (Matthew 3:2) tells us that John knew that the time was very close. Though John was in an unpopulated area, people from Jerusalem, Judea, and the areas around the Jordan came to him to hear his message. And they responded to the message by confessing their sins and being baptized.
This is the first mention of baptism in the Bible. Water was used in the Old Testament for ceremonial cleansing to remove uncleanness (Numbers 19:7), but there is no mention of complete immersion, particularly in connection with the removal of sin. That it was a new rite is shown by the Jews’ question of John, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” (John 1:25). They questioned his right to add a new ordinance if he did not have sufficient authority.
It is amusing to read how many commentators try to weasel out of the plain fact that John immersed people in water. Most try to find a connection to Old Testament cleansing and then point out the use of sprinkling or pouring in addition to immersion. Others try to argue that it isn’t healthy or decent to immerse people. But the plain fact is that Matthew 3:6 states that John was baptizing in the Jordan and not at or by the Jordan. John 3:23 also states, “Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized.” In other words the quantity of available water was important for John’s baptism, which would be true in an immersion, but not true if sprinkling or pouring was under consideration.
John’s message was a demand for change. It appears that the common man responded to John’s teachings, but when the Pharisees and Sadducees came to see this wilderness prophet they were greeted with, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7). Such talk would shock most Christians today, but they miss the point of the gospel. The gospel is not a message to make people feel good about themselves, though that is its ultimate effect. The message of God’s son is get people to change and many people will not change if they feel they are fine just as they are. Luke’s account indicates that this is how John greeted most who came to see him (Luke 3:7-8).
John plainly stated who these people were in God’s sight. He stated what they had to do – repent – and he would not let them hide behind their Jewishness. The Jews were very proud of their ancestry, but John tells them that it doesn’t count. God could make children of Abraham from rocks. The point is not who you came from, but who you are. These people needed to change to be acceptable to God and they would not change if they thought being a descendant of Abraham would save them.
Nor would John let them put off their decision. “Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10; Luke 3:9). God is preparing to bring an end to Israel because it had cease to serve a useful purpose.
Such forceful talk convicted the people who came. They wanted to know what they needed to do in practical every day terms. John told them that when someone had extra, he should share with a person who was in need (Luke 3:11). It is a teaching that continues to today (II Corinthians 8:14; I Timothy 6:17-19; James 2:15-16; I John 3:17).
To tax collectors, John told them to collect no more than that what they should. In those days a tax collector was given a quota to collect. This the government would get, period. The tax collector was expected to collect a little bit extra to cover his own salary. However, if a tax collector collected too much, the government overlooked it. Thus, there was wide spread fraud and a general distrust of all tax gatherers. “The Roman Government did not collect its own taxes. Instead of doing so, it divided the empire into districts, and sold the privilege of collecting the taxes in these districts to certain capitalists and men of rank. The capitalists employed agents to do the actual collecting. These agents were usually natives of the districts in which they lived, and those in Palestine were called publicans. Their masters urged and encouraged them to make the most fraudulent and vexatious exactions. They systematically overcharged the people and often brought false accusation to obtain money by blackmail. These publicans were justly regarded by the Jews as apostates and traitors, and were classed with the lowest and most abandoned characters. The system was bad, but its practitioners were worse. The Greeks regarded the word "publican" as synonymous with "plunderer." Suidas pictures the life of a publican as "unrestrained plunder, unblushing greed, unreasonable pettifogging, shameless business.”“ [The Fourfold Gospel]. Governments need taxes to operate (Romans 13:6), but this need is not to be used as an opportunity to steal.
John told the soldiers among his audience to avoid abusing their position of authority. They were not to intimidate people, bring false accusations, or use their position to gain money. They needed to be content with what they received for serving the government. Notice that their occupation was not condemned, only the abuses done as soldiers.
Comparing John to the Christ (Matthew 3:11-12; Mark 1:7-8; Luke 3:15-18; John 1:19-28)
With the strong expectation of the coming Messiah, John’s forceful teaching lead people to wonder who he was to come teaching with such authority. Religious men were sent to check out this prophet in the wilderness. They wanted to know if he was the Christ or Elijah, which to both questions he answered, “No.” John’s account specifically mentioned that these questioners were sent by the Pharisees (John 1:24). Since the Pharisees were the conservative element of the Jewish religion of that day (Acts 26:5), it is likely that they were the ones most concerned about any possible change to Judaism.
John claimed to be the fulfillment of prophecy, quoting Isaiah 40:3. But the questioners where more concerned about the new rite that John appeared to be introducing. If John did not have the authority of the Christ, Elijah, or the Prophet, then what right did he have to command baptism? Notice that the Jews of John’s day did not understand that the Christ and the Prophet were the same person.
The authority for John’s baptism comes from the one who would follow him. John warned the men from the Pharisees that this mighty person was already among them, though they did not realize it. This man’s authority was so great that John stated that he wasn’t worthy to serve him in even the most lowliest of ways. Where John’s baptism was with water, the mighty one’s baptism would be with God’s Spirit and with fire.
John also warned in his direct fashion that the one coming would separate the good from the bad, destroying the useless in the process.
The Result of John’s Teaching (Luke 3:19-20)
Luke jumps briefly ahead in time to tell us what happened as a result of John’s teaching. John’s plain teaching and directness eventually lead him into conflict with Herod. Herod had married his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. As you can guess from her name, she was a daughter of Herod the Great.
Notice that Herod’s arrest of John is described as just one more evil action in a long list of wicked deeds committed by Herod, but this was one of the worse. We will discuss the event in greater detail when the time comes. It is important to note the character of John and his preaching. John did not compromise his teaching or softened it when dealing with the leading men of his country.