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Commentary: Luke 3:16 Part 2

These verses mark the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. After telling the stories of the births of John the Baptist and of Jesus and the story of Jesus in the temple at age twelve, Luke signals a move to the body of his gospel by giving a sixfold date for the appearance of John the Baptist and the consequent beginning of the ministry of Jesus.
Luke then introduces us to the adult John the Baptist emerging from the wilderness to preach his baptism of repentance in the rural areas around the Jordan River. Luke conveys his understanding of John the Baptist as a forerunner of Jesus by quoting Isaiah 40:35 with the clear implication that John is the fulfillment of the Isaianic prophecy.
Elements of Structure
The passage divides easily into three sections: the sixfold date for the beginning of Jesus' ministry; the appearance of John the Baptist from the wilderness; and, the quotation from Isaiah. The entire passage serves as an introduction to the gospel proper. We might speculate that in Luke's first draft of his gospel this passage stood immediately after 1:14, the verses in which Luke states his purpose in writing his gospel. The infancy and childhood narratives which comprise 1:52:52, with their heavily Semitic and unLukan Greek literary style, may come from a separate source that Luke incorporated in a later stage of the composition of his gospel.
Luke's purpose (1:14) provides a key for our understanding of his intention in 3:16. In 1:14 Luke tells us that others have written accounts of the ministry of Jesus. He does not mention any by name but surely has in mind that earlier account that is one of his principle sources, the Gospel of Mark. Luke further tells us that he has done careful historical investigation and intends to write an orderly and accurate account of the life of Jesus. One implication of Luke's statement is that he intends to improve on Mark. One improvement is the insertion of the infancy and childhood narratives which are totally lacking in Mark. At the beginning of chapter 3 Luke embarks on the reworking of his Markan source.
Message and Exegesis
Luke's historical concern is evident in 1:14. His next improvement on Mark is to insert a date for the beginning of the ministry of Jesus (3:12). Mark has little concern for dates.
It would be another five centuries before the Christian monk Dionysius Exiguus would provide us with our means of absolute dating from the time of the birth of Christ. Luke knew only relative dating based on the years in office of current government officials and religious leaders. He begins with the most important and universally known means of dating, the year in office of the reigning emperor. Tiberius became emperor on the death of his stepfather Augustus in 14 A.D. The fifteenth year of his reign would thus be 28 or 29 A.D. Luke further tells us that Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea (2636 A.D.), and that Herod was ruler of Galilee (4 B.C.39 A.D.). Luke could have done better at this point. He could have specified that the Herod he is here talking about is Herod Antipas, not Herod the Great. Herod the Great was ruler of all Palestine at the time of the birth of Jesus and figures prominently in Matthew's infancy narrative. After Herod the Great's death in 4 B.C. (Dionysius Exiguus miscalculated the birth of Jesus by four to six years), his kingdom was divided among his three sons, Herod Antipas receiving the region of Galilee. This was the Herod who would soon behead John the Baptist. The rule of Judea was inherited by Herod the Great's son Archelaeus. Archelaeus, soon proving himself to be utterly incompetent in ruling this territory, was deposed by the emperor Augustus in 6 A.D. and replaced with a succession of Roman governors, of whom Pontius Pilate was the fifth. Next Luke mentions Herod the Great's son Philip who ruled northern transJordan from 4 B.C. to 34 A.D. Lysanias is otherwise unknown. Annas was high priest from 6 A.D. to 15 A.D. but continued to be influential long after this time. Caiaphas was high priest during the ministry of Jesus.
In vv. 2b3 Luke, following his Marcan source, tells us that at this time John the Baptist emerged from the wilderness preaching his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John began a Jewish baptizing sect that operated independently of Jesus (see Acts 19:16). Luke sees John as both the last of the prophets (Luke 16:16) and the forerunner of Jesus.
In vv. 46 Luke quotes Isaiah 40:35 as prophesying John the Baptist. Luke here improves on his Markan source. Mark quotes Malachi 3:1 then Isaiah 40:3 misattributing it all to Isaiah (Mark 1:2). Luke corrects Mark's mistake by eliminating the Malachi quotation. Luke then quotes a longer amount of material from Isaiah than Mark does.
The Isaiah quotation sets forth one of the key theological themes that runs throughout the Gospel of Luke, what some have called the theology of reversal. Isaiah is prophesying a messianic age which Luke sees as being fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. Isaiah describes the messianic age with images of reversal, valleys lifted up, mountains brought low, the crooked made straight and the rough made smooth. This symbolizes for Luke the leveling of society in the messianic age, the rich and powerful being brought low, while the poor are lifted up (see Luke 1:5253; 4:18; 6:2026; 16:1930).
The last verse of the Isaiah quotation for Luke points to Jesus. The salvation which the prophet said all flesh would one day see has now become visible to all in Jesus. Isaiah prophesies. John the Baptist prepares the way, Jesus fulfills.
J. Christian Wilson Greensboro, NC
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