The Gospel Message in Luke's Story of the Nativity - Chapter 3
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Introduction  |  Chapter 1  |  Chapter 2   |   Chapter 3   |  Chapter 4   |  Chapter 5   |  Chapter 6   |  Chapter 7

This commentary on Luke's story of the Nativity was written by Rev. Harry Colquhoun who has generously given permission for presentation on this site. Copyright ©

Chapter 3 - The Nature of John’s Ministry

 John, Luke tells us, preached to the people the “good news” (Gospel) of the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Lk. 3:3 and 3:18). Luke tells us that John engaged in a ministry of preparation. In addressing the people, Luke tells us, he was (quoting from the prophet Isaiah) “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” In other words, his was the voice of the harbinger of the Kingdom, alerting the people to the near-at-hand appearance of the Messiah.


Preparation for the Messianic rule, John emphasized, called for radical change on behalf of those who hoped to welcome that Kingdom into their midst, for the Kingdom itself would be of a radical kind. It would be a Kingdom that would bring about a radical reversal in human fortunes: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth” (Lk. 2:5). In other words, the Messianic rule would be one in which the judgment of Heaven would fall on all forms of human evil, social or political, or religious. In place of the old, Heaven would impose its own rule of righteousness, equity and justice.


 Quite apart from his actual message (which we will discuss in detail) John also gives strong emphasis to the revolutionary role he plays by the place in which he chooses to conduct his ministry: the desert. John’s choice (as we will see) appears to have been based on the symbolic importance of the desert in the history of the people. If so, it was a wise choice on John’s part.


 We will remember that it was in the wilderness that Israel entered into its historic covenant with God. It was there the Law was given and with it the pattern of life in Israel established for centuries to come. It was in the wilderness that she began her journey with God as a people of the covenant and bound herself to the service of God. The wilderness, then, is a place of special significance for a covenant people, a place of spiritual birth and a historically binding relationship with God.


                What better place, then, to prepare God’s people for a spiritual re-birth and for new beginnings?  John, we can say, is a prophet who, like a modern Moses, will start the people on a new religious journey that will eventually bring them to the foot of a new mountain (Mt. Olive) where they will receive the words of the new covenant from the mouth of the Messianic Lawgiver himself (Matt. 5:1).


                The preparatory (introductory) nature of  John’s ministry to Christ is perhaps given its strongest expression in the New Testament in the Gospel of John where John is made to point to Jesus as, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29) and when John confides in his audience that his ministry has had but one purpose to it: he has been sent, he tells his audience, “That he [Jesus] might be revealed to Israel” (Jn. 1:31). “Revealed” truths, however, are only accessible to those who view these events through the eyes of faith. Of himself, Jesus said, John was “a burning and a shining light,” a divine revelation, an ephiphany of  a particular kind; a clear witness of God’s intention in Jesus Christ. But to unbelieving eyes, the testimony of John, as self-evident as it was to the eyes of faith, went unacknowledged and unaccepted; he was for the unbelieving a mere “reed blown in the wind,” a phenomenon empty of any kind of divine or human significance whatsoever (Lk. 7:25-30).     


(It is interesting to note in Mark that Jesus begins his own ministry after he learns of John’s arrest by Herod. In other words, in the mind of Christ, John has completed his ministry; it is time for him now to begin his (Mk. 1:14).


                John’s ministry, then, in its very setting, is a place suggestive of that great change of which Mary sang: “He has shown his strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Lk. 1:51-53). It was a message that would soon be heard from the mouth of the Messiah himself: “Woe unto you who are rich now, for ye shall be poor…The first shall be last and the last first.”        


The Exodus


 In addition to the covenant at Sinai, John, in calling the people out to the desert, had probably  one other great event in mind: the Prelude to the Sinai event, the one great event that made everything possible, the Exodus from Egypt.


All in all, Israel (or Joseph as she knew herself in those days) spent four hundred long years in Egypt. Though she had entered Egypt freely and found there a temporary home for herself from famine-ridden lands of Palestine, the irony is that Egypt proved to be no home for the wandering children of the desert, but a “House of Bondage” (Ex. 20:2). Through she had entered Egypt of her own free will and at the invitation of the Pharaoh, through the changing circumstances of time, Egypt became the place where she lost her freedom and became an enslaved people.


As time went by the conditions of her servitude became harsher and harsher until eventually the groans of her suffering, our Hebrew writer tells us, reached the ears of God (Ex. 3:7).


It was at this moment of national suffering that God stretched out his hand and liberated his people from the cruel conditions of slavery into which they had fallen. Through the grace and mercy of God, Israel is able to leave Egypt and flee to a place of freedom. Once freed from Egypt, she binds herself in an act of gratitude to the service and covenant of her God. (This Exodus experience provides the basis for one of the most important insights in scripture: only in service to God is man able to liberate himself from slavery to his own sinful nature and achieve his true freedom as a child of God. In this respect, see Romans 7: 13-25  where Paul speaks of the un-liberated person as the one who is a slave to sin.)


                In the light of the Exodus experience, we can begin to see a littler more of the implications of John’s message. It is as though he is saying to the people: Israel is an enslaved people, and so in need, once more, of another Exodus. The fact that Israel was at that time an occupied land under the control of Rome would have given a double edge to his message; that is, John, in effect, would be saying: Israel is in a state, not only of political but also of spiritual bondage. This also gives special relevance to the words of  Zechariah who draws on the Exodus experience (Lk. 1:73) when speaking about the significance of  the John and Jesus events for God’s people.


It is surely quite relevant to our discussion that John, a “son of the manse,” (child of a temple priest) should have forsaken his religious roots in Jerusalem, the seat of Rabbinic authority and Israel’s spiritual centre, and made his way to the desert. His words to the Pharisees when they arrived to hear him in the desert leave us with no doubts as what he thought of the religious piety they represented  (Matt. 3:7-10) and their claim for what they regarded as their spiritual preference in the eyes of God (vs. 9). There are strong echoes of Jesus’ own preaching in all of this. This spiritual ‘bankruptcy” may have provided some of initial motivation for “getting out” and seeking an authentic spirituality in the rich religious associations of the desert. It may also have provided some of the impetus for his spiritual reform movement, characterized as it was by his emphasis on the need for repentance and spiritual cleansing.


                 In relation to the above, it actually appeared to be quite common in Christian circles–in all probability, Christian Jewish circles in particular—to draw a parallel between Israel’s condition of slavery in Egypt and the slavery of the individual to the power of sin. In a special irony, Paul (with Israel’s bondage in Egypt clearly in mind) referred to the Jerusalem of his day as a city that was “in slavery with her children” (Gal. 4:24). In other words, Jerusalem, the “city of God,” was nothing more than an Egyptian “house of bondage.” Of course his readers would understand that he was talking allegorically, not about political, but spiritual bondage—although the political bondage to Rome was probably more a concern to some people than anything else. They would realize that Paul was thinking about things in a spiritual, and not a political way. Christian thought had spiritually transformed Paul, and he no longer had any interest in politically motivated Messianic idea of the day. It was the Christian vision of the Kingdom of God that Paul was interested in. In terms of Paul’s thought, Israel is in a dire state of servitude, but not servitude to a political power in particular, but servitude to a much stronger power, the power of sin (from which there is never the possibility of flight or deliverance, except through Christ). Those who have found their freedom in Christ are those who are enjoying the blessing of spiritual emancipation and have their citizenship in the “heavenly Jerusalem” (Gal. 4:26) the city built without hands. “You have come to Mount Zion,” the writer to the Hebrews says,” and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem…to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 21-23). Expressions such as these give us some idea just how radically Christian thought had transformed the religious, political and social notions of the day. They give meaning to the words of Jesus: “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jhn. 18:36).


                                In choosing the wilderness, then, we can say, John has made his Exodus from the city of political and spiritual captivity and invited the children of “captive Jerusalem” to make their escape and bind themselves to a new liberating covenant to the Lord their God. He is doing what Ezekiel had done before him; that is, giving dramatic import or emphasis to his message (Ez. 12:3-6, 11-14).


Elijah at Mt. Horeb


                There is, however, yet one more significant event is Israel’s past that may have provided an additional inspiration for John in his choice of the desert. (We must always remember that the Israelites, as a people, saw themselves as living out a historic relationship with God that had its beginnings in a clearly remembered past. Her story was a continuing story, related to God’s on-going plan for mankind. The major events of the past were a part of her living history and constantly being absorbed and reinterpreted into her present-day relationship with God. It is, as we have pointed out, in terms of this living history that Luke writes his story.


In a moment of personal and national crisis, Elijah, the prophet with whom John was popularly identified by the people, had himself made a “forty days and forty nights” pilgrimage to the sacred mountain of the covenant (Mt. Horeb)—according to one tradition, that is. The trip was made at a time when Queen Jezebel, Ahab’s foreign Moabite Queen, had used her influence as Queen to introduce her foreign faith (the fertility cult of Baal worship) into Israel and to stamp out the worship of Jehovah.  In his campaign of personal resistance against such measures, Elijah became public enemy number one. After having his life personally threatened by Jezebel, Elijah fled to the wilderness, and, while there, at the direction of an angel, made his way to Mt. Horeb (1Kings 19:8) the mountain of the covenant.


                While at the mountain, Elijah took refuge in one of the mountain caves (the symbolic place of re-birth). His place of refuge reminds us of the “cleft of rock” in which Moses had sheltered himself while the Lord in glory “passed by” (Ex. 33:18-34). And so it is with Elijah. As he stands on the mountain before the Lord, in a manifestation of earthquake and fire, the Lord “passes by.” However, it is not in the earthquake or the fire that the Lord reveals himself to Elijah this time, but in a “still small voice” (vs. 11-13).


It is a moment of divine revelation and re-affirmation for Elijah. God is with him, and in his strength he can go forward.


                While there appears to be no attempt on the part of the Gospel writers to link John’s desert experience with the desert experience of Elijah, it seems only but natural that we should do so.  They are in the land which for both has rich associations as the land of the covenant, and is for both a place of spiritual renewal. Their journey into the desert has the symbolic significance of reminding the people where their loyalties lie and of the One to who they had betrothed themselves. 


The Essence of John’s Message;


                As to the actual nature of John’s message, we have already noted that John preached a  baptism of repentance (Lk. 3:3). This is interpreted by our Gospel writers as a ministry of preparation. In other words John is calling for spiritual reform and an openness on the part of the people for what God was about to reveal to them. Once more, but in a much more urgent sense, it was time to “break up the fallow ground,” a time to make a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn toward God. Radical reform of one’s life was required, for One is coming whose “winning fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Lk. 3:17).


                The urgency of personal reform is especially seen in John’s words to those who saw themselves as the spiritual elite, the Pharisees, the perushim, the “separated ones,” the ones whose practice it was to hold themselves aloof from the common herd in a “come not thou near me, for I am more holy than thou” attitude.


                John apparently shared much of the same antipathy toward the Pharisees that Jesus himself expressed, and appears to have been grounded in the same basic cause: religious hypocrisy. This can be strongly inferred from John’s pointed words to the Pharisees that they “bring forth fruits worthy of repentance.”  Our Gospel writers tell us that Jesus’ criticism of the temple authorities had to do with what he saw as the glaring inconsistency between what they taught and what they did. It was their hypocrisy that offended him, and all the sham and religious humbug with which they surrounded themselves. Their responsibility before God, Jesus affirmed, was to teach by example, not simply by precept. It was sheer folly to believe that one could be “a guide to the blind” just simply by being a teacher of the Law. When the teacher’s life belies his precepts, the people are offered no enlightenment, but are being led into darkness. It has become a matter of “the blind leading the blind.” If anyone was a threat to the faith, the hypocrites were.


                It was, as we say, apparently this same perceived inconsistency between teaching and practice that lay behind John’s extremely sharp words of criticism to the Pharisees when they joined his audience in the wilderness. (He would notice their arrival by the white robes with which they traditionally dressed.)Their hypocrisy was a form of poison being injected into the blood stream of the people, he said (calling them a “brood of vipers”) Bring your practice into line with your profession, John says. Repent. Don’t say, and not do. That makes a fraud out of everything. And if you are going to change, show me that you are sincere. “Bring forth fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt. 3:8). Show your sincerity by living out your faith.


Borrowing from the sermonic details of Jesus’ words to the Pharisees, we can hear John telling the Pharisees that he wanted no sham, no humbug, no saying one thing and doing another. No more standing at street corners and making long prayers to be seen of the people; no more belittling of people through a display of pretended and phony virtue, no more shunning of people who needed their help and not their judgment, no more a saying of one thing and a doing another. This all had to stop. Show God that you are genuine by doing the genuine thing. In the language again of Jesus, we can hear him saying to them: show compassion and mercy, not judgment, pray to God in the privacy of your own heart, and, in doing good, never let your left hand know what your right hand is doing; keep everything between yourself and God. Get off the street corners and stop making a parade out of yourselves. Do your praying in the privacy of your own home and perform your good works anonymously.


Some have felt that John was overly severe in his criticisms, yet, on the face of it, the prophets of the past had used a lot of strong language to describe Israel’s weak and faltering efforts to serve God. Moses, the greatest of the prophets, described Israel as a “stiff-necked” people, bent on going their own ways and doing their own thing (in defiance of God). Hosea used perhaps the strongest language of all, calling Israel a “whore” because of her faithless ways. Israel, Hosea said, had forsaken her marriage contract with God and run after new “lovers.”  Strong language indeed, but language that helps us to see “where John is coming from” in the kind of attacks he levels against the members of his audience. Like Isaiah and Ezekiel, he, too, speaks of the axe of judgment that will fall on the useless vines.


Though John’s message, then, may appear to us to be very negative in tone, with its heavy emphasis upon God’s fiery judgement, Luke tells us that John actually preached a “gospel message” to the people, a message of “good news” from God (Lk. 2:18). While John was sharp with what he saw as flagrant hypocrisy his message to the people was, again in true prophetic tone and quality, basically one of hope and promise. Those who put their disobedient past behind them and return to God will find God’s mercy and blessing. In a strictly Christian sense, this meant being open to God’s word of judgment and grace in Jesus Christ.


                The sharpness of John’s message, then, is in keeping with the very nature of his ministry. He is the agent of change and wishes to help the people prepare themselves to make the change that would be necessary to welcome Christ into their midst. The past has to be put behind and all that entailed, personally and institutionally. The people have to open themselves up for God in a new and dramatic way; they have to be open for God’s new future for them in Christ. (This, we will see, not too many were able to do, especially those—the institutional religionists—who had a personal stake in keeping the old way going.)


                The ministry of John still has its relevance for us today. His voice carries over the centuries and asks us important questions about the fundamentals of our lives. He asks us where our basic loyalties lie: questions about our commitment to God and to our beliefs; about the sincerity of our faith and the representation we make of our faith; about our willingness to open up our lives to the judgement of God and readiness to throw ourselves upon the mercy and grace he offers to us in Jesus Christ. A sincere and contrite response to these demands straightens out the crooked places in our lives and lowers the barriers of resistance we raise between ourselves and God. The right response to these questions prepares a road of access for God into our lives. A faithful response to the message he represents builds a personal bridge between our old selves and the new self that can come into being through God’s grace in Jesus Christ. “He that hath ears to hear, let him/her hear.”


Everything about John, then, who he is, what he is, where he conducts his ministry points to his perceived mission as one who is to be an agent of change; a catalyst of the new Kingdom, of God’s new covenant in Christ. He will “turn the hearts of the father to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people for their God” (Lk. 1:17). He is a Samuel, making a clear break with the past, and introducing to the world something that was wondrously and gloriously new. He is the harbinger of a new kind of Kingdom and of One whose reign will be everlasting, a kingdom without end (Lk. 1:32,33). His ministry is that one important link that links the past to the present; the bridge from the old to the new. With the advent of John, the Divine plan moves that one step closer to its completion. His task finished, having introduced the world to Christ, John fades from the human stage to give rightful place to the One who follows (Jn. 3:30).


Introduction  |  Chapter 1  |  Chapter 2   |   Chapter 3   |  Chapter 4   |  Chapter 5   |  Chapter 6   |  Chapter 7

This commentary on Luke's story of the Nativity was written by Rev. Harry Colquhoun who has generously given permission for presentation on this site. Copyright ©