For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
Romans 15:4



 A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough

Copyright 2001 James Melough

3:1.  “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,”

3:2.  “Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.”

This careful pinpointing of the time is only what might be expected of one as meticulous as Luke who had undertaken to prepare this account, being as he declared, one who had “perfect understanding of all things from the very first,” 1:3.

Relative to the two high priests, Annas and Caiaphas, history informs us that Annas had been high priest from AD 6 till AD 15 when he was deposed by Gratus the Roman governor.  The office was then held briefly by five of his sons, who were also deposed by Rome, and replaced in AD 18 by Caiaphas, son-in-law of Annas.  Many of the Jews, believing that ordination to the office of high priest was by God, and was for life, continued to recognize Annas, so that he overshadowed Caiaphas, and continued to wield great power, one evidence of that power being found in the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ was first arraigned before Annas, see Jn 18:13, who then sent Him to Caiaphas.

Annas means the grace of Jah; and Caiaphas, as comely, but since both were wicked men, the good connotation can relate only to the office they held, and not to the men themselves.  God’s estimate of the worth of Israel’s religious leaders at the time may be gauged from the fact that He bypassed them, and used John the Baptist to be His spokesman to the people.  Further evidence of God’s evaluation of them is found in the words of the Baptist, “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” 3:7 and Mt 3:7, the Lord Himself using exactly the same description in Mt 12:34, “O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things?” and again in Mt 23:33, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?”

John’s being in the wilderness speaks of separation from the things of the world, and reminds us that we too have been separated from that same world by the cross of Christ, and ought to live accordingly, giving to it nothing more than is absolutely necessary to present men with the gospel, and to supply our daily needs, as it is written, “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world,” Ga 6:14.  Spiritual growth is invariably in proportion to the measure that we maintain separation from the world.  It is in “the desert,” the place of separation, that God prepares His workmen.

The OT foreshadowing of our God-ordained separated place is found in the experience of Israel, who, following their redemption from Egyptian bondage, were led out into the desert, where God fed them with miraculously given bread, the manna, type of Christ given to us in the written Word to sustain the new life received by every believer at the moment of conversion.  And as the manna was a type of the written Word to sustain and strengthen us, so was the water from the smitten rock a type of that same Word given to refresh and cleanse us.

3:3.  “And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins;”

Since Jordan is the river of death, John’s ministry there would remind us that our ministry is also in the vicinity of “Jordan,” for no man on earth is far from the great river of death which carries multitudes into eternity every hour; and the Lord’s commission to us is to bring those men the good news of deliverance from the power of death through faith in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, He having conquered death by submitting to its power, and then demonstrating His power over it by rising again in resurrection, declaring His victory in Re 1:18, “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.”

It is to be noted that he preached “the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins,” and that is significant, for baptism is the symbolic declaration of the fact that the one being baptized has been crucified with Christ, and is dead to the world by the cross of Christ.  As a dead man is incapable of yielding any response to anything, so are believers to live as those who are dead indeed to the things of the world.  Nothing in that world should hold any attraction for us.  We are to make good in practice what is imputed to us by grace.  The need of this spiritual crucifixion is carefully avoided by the majority of today’s so-called evangelists, hence the number of professions which lack the confirmation of an obedient life.

But repentance also has a part in salvation.  Repentance implies the turning away from sin, hence the command given believers, “Be ye holy; for I am holy,” 1 Pe 1:16.  He who professes to be a believer, but continues to live sinfully, is contradicting his own profession, and casting doubt on the reality of his professed conversion.

Conversion, however, isn’t mere moral reformation.  At the heart of genuine conversion lies the remission of sins, that remission being made possible only through faith in the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The truths emphasized here are conspicuously absent from the watered down “gospel” so popular today - the moral reformation implied by repentance isn’t called for, nor is there much mention of the need of remission of sins.  This emasculated “gospel” in fact, has become a polite social prescription for the improvement of society, which leaves its deluded votaries to perish in their sins.

3:4.  “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.”

3:5.  “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;”

This quotation is from Isa 40:3-4.  The Israel to whom John preached was a spiritual wilderness, as is the world to which we too, are commanded to proclaim the glad tidings.

It is said to have been the custom in ancient times to prepare for the visit of a king by improving the roads over which he would pass; but the King whose arrival John announced, was the King of kings, and the preparation for His coming was to be spiritual, in the heart and in the mind.

The filling of every valley is understood by many to refer to the satisfaction experienced by those who are humble in heart, willing to confess themselves sinners, and trust in the Savior.  The lowering of every mountain and hill has likewise been seen as the humbling of the proud, while the straightening of the crooked has been taken to refer to the reformation of those, who prior to conversion, were crooked in their dealings with others; and the smoothing of the rough ways has been construed as the refinement of character which should follow conversion.  These suggestions certainly have merit, for all of them are related to the transformation wrought in a man’s life by the gospel.

3:6.  “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Jesus Christ crucified and risen again, is the “salvation of God.”  This declares what will be in the Millennium, for in that halcyon age there will be seen in everything the transformation resulting from Christ’s redemptive work, the transformation being not just of man, but of all creation, including the animal kingdom, Isa 11:6-8, and the earth itself, Am 9:13.

The practical lesson of this is that the world should see in our lives the moral transformation resulting from the new birth which has made us a new creation in Christ, 2 Cor 5:17.

3:7.  “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?”

Warning is an essential part of the biblical gospel for it calls upon men to save themselves from hell and the ensuing eternal torment of the lake of fire.  It is to be remembered that the Gospel preached by John, and by the Lord and His disciples, was a call for preparation to enter the millennial kingdom, that preparation of course also fitting the converts to enter heaven when the Millennium ends.

Like the prophets who preceded him, John didn’t mince words.  His referring to them as a “generation of vipers” declares not only the spiritual state of many in his audience, but that of all men, for apart from the new birth, all men are the spiritual children of that old serpent, the devil, and as is the father, so also is the child.  It was the Lord Himself Who told the Jewish leaders, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do.  He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him.  When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it,” Jn 8:44.  John’s denunciation of the people wasn’t all inclusive: there were some in the audience willing to confess themselves sinners, and seek God’s salvation made available to all men of faith, through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.

While “... the wrath to come” may include the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, it clearly goes far beyond any earthly judgment, and refers to the torment to be suffered by every unbeliever, first in hell and then eternally in the lake of fire.

3:8.  “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.”

This reiterates the truth that conversion is to be accompanied by good works, for as James says, “Faith without works is dead,” Jas 2:20.  The life must confirm the profession of the lips.

That he knew what was in their hearts is declared by his command to relinquish their false belief that all they needed to fit them for heaven was to be physically descended from Abraham.  This was their expectation, and it showed their ignorance of the fact that God’s promise was that blessing was to come only through Isaac, and not through Abraham’s other sons, the great truth connected with Isaac being that his birth had been miraculous, and not according to what was natural, for when he was born, both of his parents were dead as far has having children was concerned.  That fitness for the kingdom was to be by means of a miraculous spiritual birth is further declared in his statement that God was able of the stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Such could be only through the miraculous power of God.  Believers are those who have experienced just such a miracle.  They have been raised up out of spiritual death, and are possessed of a life and nature that are not natural, but Divine.

The reference to God’s ability to transform stones into spiritual children of Abraham, points obliquely to God’s ability to transform the Gentiles into believers; and to the proud, legalistic Jews who despised and hated the Gentiles, the one miracle was as impossible as the other, yet that is exactly what God did, so that the Gentiles have become heirs of even better blessings than those forfeited by Jewish unbelief.

3:9.  “And now also the ax 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.”

This has reference to the fact that for Israel judgment was fast approaching.  A brief forty years would bring dissolution of Jewish autonomy, destruction of the temple, and therefore the end of the Levitical system, and the scattering of the Jews amongst the nations, where they have remained for virtually two thousand years.  The believing Jews who would die in that destruction would enter heaven, but the unbelievers would plunge into hell to await the resurrection of damnation which would result in their being banished into the eternal torment of the lake of fire.

The reference to the need of the tree to produce good fruit continues to emphasize that more than a mere lip profession of faith is needed from those who would enter heaven: the profession must be accompanied by righteousness in the life.

3:10.  “And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then?”

When preaching produces response there is hope, for it indicates that the conscience has been pricked, but when the message is met with indifference it is tragic, for apart from an awakened conscience there can be no salvation.  John’s preaching touched many consciences, but it is significant that it was “the people” and not their rulers who asked the question, What shall we do then?

3:11.  “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.”

This teaches, not that salvation is by works, but rather, that a genuine conversion produces good works.  That the vast majority of the nation of Israel did not possess eternal life is declared in the fact that the good enjoined by John and by the Lord, was conspicuously absent from their lives, in spite of all their outward religious observances and show.  A proof of genuine repentance would be that they would do good to others.

In addition to the literal meeting of the temporal needs of others, there may be also a higher spiritual meaning.  Sin­ce the coat speaks of covering, the reference may be to the fact that those who have already received God’s gift of eternal life, and are therefore covered by Christ’s righteousness, are responsible to be His witnesses so that others may be led to accept that covering also.  The mention of meat may have reference to the fact that those who are now able to understand the Scriptures are responsible to share that spiritual food with others.

3:12.  “Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do?”

The publicans were the hated tax-collectors, and there is no reason to believe that their coming was anything but the evidence of genuine saving faith, their question, “What shall we do?” implying that they were willing to do whatever God commanded in order to demonstrate the reality of their conversion.  This, incidentally, is the mark of all genuine faith: there is obedience to God’s will as revealed in His Word.

3:13.  “And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you.”

They weren’t called upon to abandon their profession of tax collecting, but in their honest practice of that profession they were to demonstrate the reality of their verbal profession of faith.  A job is to be abandoned only when its demands require the believer to disobey God.

3:14.  “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.”

It is to be remembered that it was still the age of law, so the soldier wasn’t commanded to abandon his job, but to do it to God’s glory.  In this present age of grace, however, it is difficult to see how a believer could reconcile his new state, with the choice of a military career, which could involve him in the taking of human life.

The need for the soldier to be content with his wages is an exhortation little heeded today by the majority of professing Christians, for it is obvious that very few are content with their wages, their discontent being simply rebellion against God’s appointment of their position in life.

3:15.  “And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not:”

3:16.  “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:”

It seems clear that John’s preaching had had the effect of leading the people to expect the appearance of the Messiah, and the inauguration of the millennial kingdom, but he hastened to assure them that he himself was not the Christ. Furthermore it is clear that John’s baptism was different from Christian baptism.  The faith of the OT age which led men to be baptized as an outward symbol of their new inward state, did not involve their receiving the Holy Spirit.  That is an experience unique to the NT age which began on the day of Pentecost, when believers did receive the Holy Spirit to indwell them permanently, the outward evidence of that reception of the Holy Spirit being the descent of tongues as of fire resting upon each of them, Ac 2:1-4.

That Pentecostal fire, however, is not the fire mentioned here.  This reference is to the judgment which Christ will execute when He returns to end the Tribulation and set up the millennial kingdom, the result of that judgment being the bodily consignment of all unbelievers into the unquenchable fire of hell and ultimately of the lake of fire, for as the next verse makes clear it is judgment that is being discussed.

It is to be remembered that had Israel accepted Christ at His first advent they could have entered the millennial kingdom then, for that was the recompense offered to faith in the gospel preached by the Lord and His disciples.  He would still have been crucified, for apart from His atoning death there could have been no remission of sin.  The seven years of the Tribulation would have followed, and been ended by His return in power and glory to set up the millennial kingdom, which would have been followed by the eternal state involving a new heavens and a new earth. 

It was Israel’s refusal to accept Him as her Savior Messiah that resulted in God’s withdrawal of the offer of the millennial kingdom, and the bringing in of this present Church age which occurs as a parenthesis in the continuity of His dealings with Israel.  But following the rapture of the Church He will resume His dealings with His ancient people, the Tribulation judgments bringing a remnant of them to repentant faith in Christ, which will bring the physically surviving believers out of the Tribulation into the enjoyment of millennial blessing; and those believers who die in the Tribulation, into eternal blessings in heaven.

3:17.  “Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly (thoroughly) purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable.”

The scene is one of judgment, the fan being a shovel used to toss the grain into the air so that it fell back on to the threshing floor, while the lighter chaff was blown aside by the wind, and was later swept up and burned.  John used this separation of the valuable wheat from the worthless chaff to illustrate the truth that the Christ whose coming he announced would also separate men, believers being likened to the wheat; and unbelievers, to the chaff.  We should note that in each kernel of wheat is the germ of life.  That kernel, sown in the ground, will produce more wheat.  Not so with chaff.  It lacks life, and therein lies the difference between believer and unbeliever.  The former has within him the eternal life of Christ: the latter does not, and it is that which determines whether a man will be in heaven or the lake of fire eternally.  The fact that the fire is unquenchable confirms what other Scriptures declare: the punishment of the unbeliever is eternal.

3:18.  “And many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people.”

We aren’t told what those other things were, but there can be little question that he taught them from the OT Scriptures (the only ones then existing) what would enable them to recognize the Messiah when He appeared in their midst.  Obviously, however, as far as the Jewish leaders at least were concerned, much of that teaching fell on deaf ears.

3:19.  “But Herod the tetrarch, being reproved by him for Herodias his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done,”

3:20.  “Added yet this above all, that he shut up John in prison.”

What is described in these two verses didn’t immediately follow John’s preaching, and precede the Lord’s baptism, for the imprisonment and murder of John occurred quite some time after the Lord had begun His public ministry.  It’s being mentioned here is in harmony with what has been the description of John’s ministry.  With the baptism of the Lord Jesus Christ, John’s ministry was virtually ended; his work was done, and these two verses simply tell us how his earthly life ended.

John very obviously wasn’t intimidated by any man, even those in positions of high authority, wielding the power of life and death.  He hadn’t hesitated to denounce Herod’s evil ways, even though he must have been well aware that in doing so he was risking his life.  Courage like his is conspicuously absent today.  Few indeed are those willing to denounce the evil that is destroying our society and provoking the judgment of God.  It is largely ignored even by professing Christians, that a gospel which fails to expose sin and announce its eternal consequences, is no gospel at all.

Herod might imprison John, and later kill him, but in doing so he compounded his own sins, and failed to realize that his silencing of John’s censure couldn’t alter the fact that in a coming day it will be his own mouth that will be silenced as he stands before the Lord Jesus Christ at the great white throne, and is banished into the eternal torment of the lake of fire.

3:21.  “Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened,”

3:22.  “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.”

While outwardly the baptism of Jesus was no different from that of the others who were baptized there that day, what was represented by His baptism was very different.  In their case it was the symbolic confession of sin, and of repentance for that sin, and acknowledgment that they were under sentence of death, but lived because of faith in the coming Savior.  He, however, had no sin to confess or repent of, but in going under the water He was declaring in symbol that He would die as man’s Substitute, while in rising up out of the water He announced in symbol that He would then rise again for the justification of all who would trust Him as Savior.

“... and praying....”  What He prayed is not recorded, but the fact that He prayed emphasizes that while He never ceased to be God, He was no less perfect Man, and as such was as much dependent upon God as are all men.

3:23.  “And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son  (lit., son-in-law) of Heli.”

It is generally agreed that this is the genealogy of the Lord through Mary rather than through Joseph, and in keeping with this gospel of the Son of man, it goes all the way back to Adam, thus linking the Lord with the human race.

In Mt 1:16 Joseph is declared to have been the son of Jacob (not Jacob the son of Isaac), and it is generally agreed that here in Lk 3:23 his being called the son of Heli was according to the custom which reckoned a son-in-law to be also the son of the wife’s father.  (Note that in Matthew it is said that Jacob begat Joseph, but here in Luke it is not said that Heli begat Joseph, but that Joseph was the son, or literally, son-in-law of Heli).

The Lucan account shows that Mary was also descended from David, but through his son Nathan, whereas Joseph was descended from David through Solomon.  Having Joseph as His legal father, gave Christ title to the throne of David, but in giving Him title also through Mary who was descended from David through Nathan, Jesus was not under the curse pronoun­ced on Jechoniah (Jer 22:30) who was descended from David through Solomon.

3:24-38.  Though it would be interesting and profitable to give a detailed exposition of these verses, based on the meanings of the names, such a discourse lies beyond the scope of this present work, so we’ll conclude our study of this chapter by noting that when Adam is said to be the son of God it means only that God had created him.

[Luke 4]



     Scripture portions taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version
© 2000-2005 James Melough