Preparing the Way for the Lord
Passage: Luke 3:1–3:20
Preparing the Way for the Lord
If we were to sum up our passage this morning in one word, perhaps the best choice would be the word preparation. The Infancy Narrative, as its called, is finished, and now Luke begins to prepare us for Jesus’ earthly ministry. From ch3 v1 until ch4 v13, Luke describes a number of events that set things in order for Christ to be revealed in his ministry. Jesus is baptized, ch3 vv21-22. Jesus’ genealogy is recorded, ch3 vv22-38. And then Jesus is faithful under temptation, ch4 vv1-13. All of that happens before Jesus’ ministry, and all of that is about preparation – paving the way for Jesus’ ministry to begin in full.
But since the theme is clearly preparation, it should be no surprise that this new section begins with John the Baptist. You’ll remember back in chapter 1 that the angel Gabriel said John would go before the Lord to prepare the way. That is John’s ministry – he is the forerunner – and therefore, it is no surprise that in this new section focused on preparation, Luke begins with John the Baptist.
Now, of course, the question becomes, “How does John prepare the way?” How does John fulfill his ministry? To answer that question I’d like us to consider John’s ministry here in Luke ch3 from four different perspectives. Each one corresponds to a major section of the passage, and each one helps us see how John prepares the way for Christ. First of all, we’ll consider the Prophet’s Call in vv1-6. Second, we’ll look at the Prophet’s Message in vv7-14. Third, we’ll notice the Prophet’s Humility in vv15-18. And finally, we’ll end with the Prophet’s Faithfulness in vv19-20. Four perspectives on John’s ministry that I pray will prepare and point us to Christ. Let’s begin, then, in vv1-6 with the Prophet’s Call.
The Prophet’s Call
Much like he did in chapter 2, Luke sets these events in the context of world history. Notice how Luke lists seven different rulers in vv1-2, moving from the global down to the local. He begins with Tiberius Caesar, the Roman emperor, and then works down the chain of command in the empire before ending with the Jewish authorities Annas and Caiphas. Now, if you know the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry, then you’ll recognize these men are responsible, humanly speaking, for Jesus’ death. Annas and Caiphas will preside over Jesus’ trial, where he’s unjustly condemned by the people he came to save. And then Herod and Pilate will go back and forth before Pilate finally agrees to have Jesus crucified. In terms of world affairs, these are the men whose words have the power to shape the course of history.
But then notice what Luke says at the end of v2. In this context of global power, the sovereign God speaks, v2 – “during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah.” That is a significant statement for a number of reasons. For one, v2 reminds us that it is the word of God that has the ultimate power over the affairs of history. It’s not Caesar or Herod, Pilate or Caiphas who determine the course of Jesus’ life. It is God’s word. You see, even during this time of preparation, Luke is reminding us that everything about Jesus’ ministry will happen according to the powerful word of our sovereign God.
But v2 is also significant for what it tells us about John the Baptist. Understand that at this point in Israel’s history, God has not spoken to his people in over four hundred years. Malachi was the last prophet God sent to Israel, and his ministry ended centuries ago. For over four hundred years, then, God has been silent. Think about that. No prophetic revelation. No new insight from the Lord. No further confirmation of God’s promise. Nothing, just silence.
But here in v2, that silence is broken, as the word of God comes to John. This is exactly how God called his prophets in the OT. Isaiah 38.4 – “then the word of the Lord came to Isaiah.” Jeremiah 1.11 – “And the word of the Lord came to” Jeremiah. Ezekiel 6.1 – “The word of the Lord came to” Ezekiel. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and on and on we could go. The point is that John’s call fits precisely with the OT prophets of God, and that’s what John is. He is a prophet of the One, True, and Living God, and his ministry signifies that God is again speaking to his people.
But John’s status as a prophet also reminds us that his primary task is to proclaim God’s word. Notice v3, where Luke gives a brief summary of John’s preaching, v3 – “And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The key insight here is not so much about baptism, but the connection between repentance and forgiveness. This is essential for seeing how John prepares the way for Christ. We can think of repentance as a two-fold reality. It is both confession and action. Repentance begins with the confession that I have sinned against God and stand in need of his mercy, but repentance then takes action to turn away from that sin in order to follow God in renewed faith and obedience. And that’s what John’s baptism symbolizes – it is a declaration of repentance, which is itself a confession of our need for God.
And that, brothers and sisters, is why repentance and forgiveness go together. It’s not that the act of baptism forgives anyone. No external religious rite can purchase forgiveness. Instead, John’s baptism of repentance expressed a person’s need for forgiveness, and even more importantly, that person’s need for God. You see, you can’t be forgiven until you recognize your need. Think about it. If I don’t believe that I have sinned, why would I ever seek forgiveness for my sin? I wouldn’t. And that’s why John called people to repentance – because it confronted people with their need for forgiveness.
But even still, how does this baptism of repentance prepare the way for Christ? How does this point to the Messiah? Notice where Luke goes in vv4-6. He goes to the OT, the book of Isaiah actually, and Luke shows us how John’s prophetic ministry was unlike any of the OT prophets. John, in other words, had a unique calling. Look again at vv4-6, and listen for how Isaiah’s word match up with John’s ministry, v4 – “As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” Isaiah looked forward to the day when God would raise up another prophet – a voice in the wilderness – and this prophet would prepare the way for God to come. He would remove the obstacles, so to speak, in order to pave a smooth highway for the Lord’s arrival.
But notice what would be revealed when the Lord did arrive, v6 – all flesh, that is all kinds of people, would see the salvation of God. That’s key. The voice crying in the wilderness calls people to repent because God himself is coming to save.
Now, make the connection with John’s ministry. John is the voice crying in the wilderness, which means his preaching of repentance prepares people to see that the Savior, even God himself, is coming. You see, that’s the preparation. John’s baptism of repentance prepared people to see where forgiveness is found – not in John, but in in the One who comes after John, the Lord Jesus Christ.
I want to pause here and remind you that there is no religious action that can ever earn God’s forgiveness. We’re going to talk about repentance in more detail here in just a moment, and I may even say some hard things about our need to repent. But before we get to those specifics, I want to be very clear. There is no religious action you can do that will earn forgiveness. Baptism can’t forgive your sins, fasting can’t forgive your sins, going to church can’t forgive your sins. You could offer the best repentance of any person who has ever lived, and without Christ, that repentance wouldn’t get you one step closer to God. Forgiveness is only found in the One who comes after John, the Lord Jesus. You see, that’s why John called people to repent in the first place – not to earn forgiveness, but rather as the first step in recognizing that forgiveness and salvation are found only in the Savior whom God has provided, Jesus Christ.
The Prophet’s Message
That brings us to the second aspect of John’s ministry – the Prophet’s Message. We’ve just noted how John came on the scene preaching a baptism of repentance, and his message in vv7-9 shows us more clearly what true repentance requires. There are few points to note here.
First of all, true repentance requires action. Look at v7, where John confronts the crowd that is coming out to hear him, v7 – “You brood of vipers,” John says, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Now, biblically speaking, if you called someone a snake, where does your mind go? To the Garden of Eden, right? Where the serpent whispers his lies to Adam and Eve. And that is the point behind John’s strong language. He is identifying the crowds with the evil one. They are acting not like the children of God, but of the devil.
But why come on so strong? Why does John say this? Notice where he goes in v8 – “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” That language of bearing fruit is significant. There were apparently some in the crowd who were just going through the motions. They weren’t really repentant. They just wanted to escape the bad stuff by getting dunked in water. And John says, “That’s not true repentance. That’s not actually responding to God. Sure, you see there’s a problem, and you look like you’re fleeing. But in reality, you’re just going through the motions.” In other words, John is railing against heartless ritual that never bears fruit in action.
Now, at this point, we have to remember that John is a transitional figure in redemptive history. John is the bridge between the old covenant and the new. The specific situation John is addressing here in v8 is not exactly the same as our situation today. But at the same time, the principle John preaches in v8 is the same, and that principle is this – true repentance requires action. It’s not enough to simply go through the motions. We must then take action to turn from sin, put it away, and grow in renewed commitment to God.
Is that true of your life? If you’re trusting in Christ today, are you seeking, by God’s grace, to demonstrate repentance in action? Maybe it’s seeking to change how you speak to your children or to your friends. Maybe it’s resolving to not pass on gossip, or to not put before your eyes any worthless thing? Maybe it’s committing again today to not love money but instead to give generously to the Lord and to others. Whatever the area, are our lives marked by a repentance that bears fruit not just in words, but in action?
Along with action, the prophet’s message also shows us that true repentance is humble before God. In the rest of v8, John anticipates an objection. Remember, John is preaching to Jews at this point, people who pride themselves on being the descendants of Abraham. But notice how John anticipates their pride, v8 – “And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” Here, John warns the crowd not to trust in their genealogy. Some Jews apparently believed that their connection with Abraham automatically spared them from God’s wrath and made them immune to the need for repentance. “Why should we repent – we already belong to Abraham! We already have the promises! God won’t judge us.” You can pretty easily hear that objection, can’t you? And it was an objection that was fundamentally rooted pride.
But John destroys that objection and he does so by pointing them to the sovereign power of God. When it comes to raising up heirs for Abraham, God is not bound by genealogy. God can raise up children of the promise from stones if he has to. God can take what is dead and lifeless, and through his sovereign grace, he can grant life and then bring that newly raised person into his family. It’s actually a striking picture of conversion, isn’t it – God raising the dead to life by his grace? You see, membership in God’s family is not about physical heritage. It’s about God’s grace that calls his people to himself.
And that is the crowd’s deadly error at this point. They are trusting in themselves, not God. And therefore, they are in danger. Notice the striking image in v9, where John speaks of an axe ready to cut down unfruitful trees. That’s a warning of imminent judgment. Judgment is near, John is saying, so don’t trust in your pride. The blood of Abraham cannot save you from the judgment of God. Instead, what the crowd must do is humble themselves before God in repentance.
Again, brothers and sisters, this situation is not exactly the same as what we face to do. Probably none of us here today are physical descendants of Abraham who can boast in our genealogy. But there is a warning here for us, and it has to do with spiritual pride. Oh, how easy it is to think that some aspect of our Christian upbringing absolves us of repentance. How subtly we can begin to believe that our status before God rests on our religiosity. And then how quickly we can assume that repentance doesn’t apply to us.
For that reason we need to pay attention to John’s warning in v8, and we need to remember that the entirety of our life before God should be marked by repentance – by a willingness to confess where we have gone astray and then to seek, by his grace, to pursue obedience and holiness before him. We should beware of spiritual pride, and one of the best ways to do so is to regularly humble ourselves before God in repentance.
The prophet’s message has emphasized action and humility as necessary for true repentance, but there is a final aspect we need to see. True repentance puts away self-oriented living. You’ll notice in v10 that the crowd responds to John’s preaching. “What then shall we do,” they ask. By the mercy of God, the crowd has listened. But it’s not just the crowd – it’s also tax collectors and soldiers. In fact, in vv10-14, John addresses three different groups of people, giving each group specific instructions on repentance. Now, we don’t know who exactly made up the crowd at this point, but we do know that tax collectors and soldiers were despised in the first century. Both were viewed as sell-outs, traitors to the hated Romans, and therefore, everyday Jews in the first century despised tax collectors and soldiers. And yet, God’s word is preached to the despised as well as to the crowd. No one, it seems, is beyond the reach of God’s mercy. No one is beyond repentance, we might say.
Notice John’s instructions to these groups. What should they do? The crowd should share their possessions with those in need. Tax collectors shouldn’t charge more and keep the extra for themselves. And similarly, soldiers are not to use their authority to extort people or threaten them. Now, there’s a lot we might say about these specific instructions, but is there a common thread that ties them all together? Yes, there is, and it’s the call to put away self-oriented living. That’s the thread that ties all the groups together. Instead of loving yourself, John says, you must love God by demonstrating love for your neighbor. Do you see the connection? Instead of a self-oriented life, John calls them to a God-oriented life that is evidenced in love for neighbor. And if you think about the OT, this makes perfect sense. What is the greatest commandment? To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And what is the second? To love your neighbor as yourself. But John’s point here is that the two commands actually go together. How do I show that I love God? By turning away from self-love in order to love my neighbor as God commanded.
I take this to be a foundational fruit of a repentant life. Am I using the advantages and position I have to serve myself, or am I using such things to serve God by loving those around me? Do I view my gifts and circumstances as primarily about me, or do I view them as God-given means to serve others for God’s glory? A repentant life is one that consistently turns away from self in order love God and others. Is that true of us? None of us will do that perfectly, but is the overall picture of my life and yours one of love for God manifested in love for others?
Action, humble before God, and turning away from self-love – those are the features of true repentance, and the preaching of true repentance is what marked the prophet’s message.
The Prophet’s Humility
Let’s look at the third perspective on John’s ministry, this time in vv15-18 – The Prophet’s Humility. The crowd, it seems, senses the significance of the moment, and they begin to ask questions about John’s identity. Notice v15 – “As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ.” The crowd knows something new is happening, but they’re not exactly sure what it all means. And so, they begin to wonder – Could John be the Christ?
Now, think about how John could spin this moment if he wanted to. He could really make a name for himself, couldn’t he? I mean, if he could capitalize on this momentum, there’s no telling what kind of ministry he could build for himself.
But that’s not what John does. With clarity and humility, John points the crowd away from himself and to the One who is to come. In fact, notice how thoroughly John champions Jesus’ superiority:
First of all, John points to Jesus’ superior status. Notice v16 – “John answered them all, saying, ‘I baptized you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” Now, you’ll notice John doesn’t use Jesus’ name. Instead, he calls Jesus the One who is mightier than I. The idea is anointing with power. John is clearly anointed by God, but Jesus, John says, will have a greater anointing. He is mightier than John.
And then, just to make his point even clearer, notice how John describes himself as a servant. John says he’s not worthy to untie the sandals of the One who is coming. In the Judaism of John’s day, untying sandals was about the lowest job you could have. Even Jewish servants were not required to do such a menial job, and yet, John says even this menial task would be too great for him. You see, it’s a striking confession of Jesus’ superior status. However significant John is, Jesus is much greater.
But John then goes on in v16 to highlight Jesus’ superior ministry. Listen for the contrast that John lays out in v16 – “I baptized you with water,” John says, “but he who is mightier…will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” You see, Jesus has the superior ministry because he has a superior baptism.
Now, what does it mean that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit? If you think back to the OT, then you’ll remember how God promised that in the last days, he would pour out his Spirit on all of his people, so that there would be no distinction. All God’s people would have the Spirit, and therefore, all would be equipped for service to God. What’s more, this promise of the Spirit was the central hope of the new covenant.
When John says that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit, his point is that Jesus’ ministry will fulfill those new covenant hopes. Jesus’ ministry will bring about the promised reign of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of God’s people. And if we were to peak ahead to Luke’s second volume, the book of Acts, this is precisely what we would find occurring as the church is established. Jesus inaugurates the new covenant with his blood at the cross, his rises from the dead, he ascends again to heaven, and then from heaven’s throne, Jesus does what? He pours out his Spirit on the church, beginning at Pentecost and then spreading out to the ends of the earth in the preaching of the gospel.
Brothers and sisters, this is the glory of we have received in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ superior ministry is God’s grace to us who have believed. Let’s not miss this. To have the Spirit is to belong to Jesus, for he gives the Spirit to all who trust in him.
Superior status, superior ministry – but there’s one more piece to John’s humility. V17 – Jesus has superior authority. V17 is a picture of judgment. Listen again – “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Jesus is the one with the winnowing fork. The chaff are the wicked who deny him, while the wheat are those who trust in his name. What happens to the chaff? They are condemned in the fire of God’s judgment. But notice who is the one separating the chaff and the wheat? It’s the Lord Jesus himself. He is the One who will judge the living and the dead. You see, John could warn people of God’s judgment, but Jesus will enforce it. He has the superior authority.
Overall, then, these verses show us how clearly and thoroughly John puts himself beneath the One who is to come. But what’s most amazing to me is how John has no problem doing this. Did you notice that? John doesn’t grumble. He doesn’t posture. Even later, when John’s disciples begin to follow Jesus, John doesn’t object. Why? Because John recognizes that in the presence of glory, the only right response is humility.
And there is a lesson here for us, brothers and sisters. Remember, John has been filled with the Holy Spirit since birth. If there was ever a Spirit-filled, Spirit-empowered ministry, then surely it was John’s ministry. And yet, what does John use his Spirit-filled ministry to do? Make much of Christ. Put Jesus on display.
And that’s the takeaway, brothers and sisters. If we want to have Spirit-filled, Spirit-empowered lives, we don’t need to spend our time looking for more influence or craving greater gifts. No, we need to spend our time pointing others to Christ and making much of Jesus. This is always a mark of the Holy Spirit’s work – Jesus is magnified through the humility of his people. Or, to use John’s own words, a Spirit-filled ministry is one where we decrease and Jesus increases.
The Prophet’s Faithfulness
We’ve looked at the Prophet’s Calling, his Message, and his Humility. We’re now ready for the final aspect of John’s ministry, and we’ll close with this. In vv19-20, we see the Prophet’s Faithfulness. After a brief summary of John’s ministry in v18, Luke closes the passage with a description of what happened to John. Notice what Luke says here at the end, v19 – “But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.” Herod, as you know, is a powerful man in Israel, but he is also a wicked man. Herod is in need of repentance, in other words, but who’s going to have the courage to tell Herod to repent? Apparently, John does. He confronts the powerful but wicked king. You see, John was faithful, brothers and sisters. He didn’t change his message. He didn’t water it down. It didn’t matter if John was preaching to crowds in the wilderness or to Herod in the palace. No matter the situation, John was faithful to the word of God.
And for that faithfulness, John was put in prison. I want you to catch that. John was faithful, and therefore, he went to prison. His faithfulness, in other words, did not mean his ministry was easy. In fact, it was just the opposite. John’s faithfulness was costly, even to the point of costing John his life as we’ll see later. And yet, John stood firm. John kept preaching. John didn’t waver.
And so, the question is how was John able to do this? How did he stand firm, even at great cost? The answer is all the way back in v2 – “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” Seven mighty rulers, seemingly directing the affairs of history. Seven men of power who will play a part in Jesus’ death. But in the midst of that global power, God’s word comes to John. And that is the reason for John’s faithfulness. He was called by God’s Word, he was shaped by God’s Word, and he was confident that God’s Word would prove true, no matter the circumstances. And with that confidence, John could stand and preach, even to Herod, “Repent, for the Mighty One is coming.”
Who knows what our day in history holds for us? Who knows how the affairs of this world will turn out? There may well be another Herod-like ruler who rises in wickedness and seeks to stop the preaching of God’s Word. If that day comes, faithfulness will be needed. And if that day comes, it will be God’s Word that enables us to stand.
I close with the encouragement that I so often give to you, because it’s the encouragement God’s people need in every age. Build your life on the powerful Word of God, and as you do, remember that no matter the circumstance, God’s Word will uphold you to the end. Amen.