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Commentary: Luke 3:1-6

After introducing his own infancy material with its characteristic Lukan themes, the author returns to Mark's order and describes the ministry of the Baptist before that of Jesus. He shares with Matthew material apparently unavailable to Mark, thus some of the Baptist material is apparently from "Q." The preacher is well advised to compare this text to its synoptic parallels (Mk 1:1-6; Mt 3:1-6).
Structure of the Passage
The text is structured by identifying John the Baptist according to time (1-2a), place (2b-3), and function (3b-6).
V. 1 The verse reads like the opening of a book. It is characteristic of Luke to tie us to contemporary history and is a mark of his use of Hellenistic models. The text can be seen as foreshadowing as these characters appear later in the work in connection with Jesus. Tiberius Caesar ruled from 14 to 37 A.D.; Pontius Pilate was prefect of Judea from 26 to 36. Herod the Tetrarch (4 B.C.--39 A.D.) and Philip (4 B.C.--34 A.D.) were sons of Herod the Great. Of Lysanias nothing is known for certain. Annas was High Priest from 6-15 A.D.; his son-in-law, Caiaphus, was the Roman appointee from 18-37 A.D. The names are apparently arranged in order of descending size of geo-political jurisdiction from empire to city.
V. 2 Unlike the political rulers named above, John's source of authority is from God who is the source of his preaching and the authority for his baptism. John's call is cast in a form like that of the Hebrew prophets. (See Jer 1:2; Hos 1:1; Ez 1:3.) The desert is the place of theophany, of spiritual experience, and Israel's formation. In this context it probably means an uninhabited place, not one without water (which would be needed for baptism). It may also connect John with Qumran's influence.
V. 3 That John went into all the region around the Jordan gave him water for baptism and made him an itinerant preacher like his cousin, Jesus. A baptism of repentance meant a change of direction. "Forgiveness of sin" uses the language of cancellation of economic debts and release from slavery (cf. 5:31-32). Repentance and forgiveness are two ideas Luke associates with what Jesus achieved (cf. 24-47). John thus begins the time of Jesus.
Vv. 4-6 Luke quotes Isaiah 40:3-5 but omits Matthew's fulfillment formula and Mark's use of Malachi 3:1 and extends the Isaiah quotation. Interestingly, Qumranites applied Isaiah 40:3 to themselves in QS 8:12-15. The quotation suggests that John is not just a prophet; he prepares the way for the Lord (cf. 1:76b, 3:4b).
V. 4 To prepare the way makes reference to the ancient practice of improving roads before kings made journeys over them. Here the physical image is used with a spiritual intention.
V. 6 Luke has extended the quotation for the phrase "all flesh shall see" which continues his theme of the universality of Jesus' mission. (See 2:31-32.)
Bonnie Bowman Thurston