John Preached a Baptism of Repentance (Luke 3:1-6)
1. God’s Timing is Perfect (Luke 3:1-2a)
2. God Uses You and Me (Luke 3:2b)
3. We must repent of sin to prepare for Christ (Luke 3:3-6)
In ancient times, when a king was going to visit a city, he would send before him someone to herald his coming, someone to announce that he would be arriving soon. The herald would go around the city, and go before the leaders of the city, telling them all, “The king is coming. He will be here any day. So clean up your lives. Make sure you are all in obedience to the kings commands so that you will not be punished when he arrives.”
This herald also served as a city inspector. He would go around the city and make a list of things that needed to be fixed. He would tell them, “Clean up your city. Sweep your streets. Get rid of all the garbage lying around. Round up any criminals to make the city safe. Fix the roads; make them smooth and straight. Make sure the town is gleaming. Make sure the city is fit for a king to ride through.” It was an embarrassment for that city, and the people of the city, if they were not prepared when the king did arrive. It was also an insult to the king if they had not prepared properly for his arrival. If he came, and they were not prepared, he might mete out some judgment and punishment upon the city and its rulers.
As we look at Luke 3, this is what we see going on. The King is coming, and He has sent a herald to announce His imminent arrival. The king, of course, is Jesus Christ. The Gospel of Matthew brings this out very clearly, but we have also seen that Christ is King in the first two chapters of Luke. The angel told Mary in Luke 1:32 that her son would sit on the throne of His father David, and He would reign over Israel forever, and of His kingdom there would be no end. Zacharias’ prophecy about Christ in Luke 1:68-75 said much the same thing. When Jesus was born, the angels came and trumpeted His birth and gave Him a kingly welcome.
But the herald “the one who will pronounce His coming” is John the Baptizer. I prefer to call him John the Baptizer instead of John the Baptist, because, frankly, the Bible doesn’t tell us what denomination he was. Ha! But John has come as a herald to make sure that the kings subjects are well prepared for the kings coming. John has come to prepare the way.
John Prepares the Way (Luke 3:1-22)
And John prepares the way by doing what a herald does: he proclaims a message. In other words, he preaches. That’s what preaching is, after all. It is a proclamation of God’s message. John the Baptizer’s message is that the people need to repair their lives and prepare for Christ’s coming. He does this by calling the people to repent and be baptized in Luke 3:1-6.
John Preached a Baptism of Repentance (Luke 3:1-6)
Luke, since he is a very accurate historian, provides a very detailed time frame for the events he is about to unfold. It is in Luke 3:1-2 where we see that God’s timing for this message was perfect.
1. God’s Timing Is Perfect (Luke 3:1-2a)
Luke 3:1-2a. Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests,
Due to all of the names mentioned here, we know that these events happen somewhere between September of 27 A.D. and October of 28 A.D. But aside from including these names to set the date for us, Luke includes them to show how far Israel had fallen. Politically, the Jews were ruled by foreigners, and religiously, Annas and Caiaphas had been illegally put into their positions by the Roman authorities, and constantly used their power to line their own pockets and increase their own authority. Annas was even sometimes called a viper who hissed or whispered in the ears of judges and politicians in order to influence their decisions. That becomes key when we look at Luke 3:7.
This list of names is a clear reference to the prophecy in Genesis 49 that the scepter had departed from Judah which we learned about previously.  The political and religious condition of Israel was so fallen and corrupt, it was clearly time for the Messiah to be revealed. But before the Messiah is fully revealed, a prophet must rise and call the people back to God.
2. God Uses You and Me (Luke 3:2b)
And that is exactly what happens. At the end of Luke 3:2, with distinctly Old Testament terminology, we are introduced to the last of the Old Testament prophets. We read there that the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. John was born, remember, back in Luke 1, to his parents Zacharias and Elizabeth. And Zacharias was told by an angel of the Lord that his son, John, would be a prophet in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord (1:17). Now, 30 years later, this promise is about to come true. John is living in the wilderness, and the Word of the Lord comes to him.
Though we have just read of one emperor, one governor, three tetrarchs, and two religious high priests, – quite a list of people who are important and prestigious in the eyes of the world, the word of God does not come to them. It comes to a relatively unknown man living in the wilderness. Do not feel like you have to be somebody well known and of great influence to be used by God. God uses you and me, not the most prominent or popular. Just get on your knees, in prayer, with the Word of God before you, and take hope. God will use you. That is what we see here with John. He was in the wilderness, and the Word of God came to him.
And I can tell you how the Word of God came to him. Back in the Middle Ages, from about 500 to 1500 A.D. men and women who wanted to hear from God would go out and live in the desert for years on end. Many of them became known as the desert fathers. They would fast and pray and do some of the strangest things. One named Simon the Stylite spent 37 years standing on top of a pillar 60 feet high without coming down. His only exercise was bowing, which he did a lot of. One disciple of Simon counted 1,244 bows in one night before he gave up counting. Simon tied himself up on top of that pillar with a pole and ropes so he wouldn’t sit down or fall off when he slept. His ropes caused wounds in his arms and legs, which then became filled with maggots and other parasites. One time, a maggot fell out of one of his wounds, and he picked it up and put it back in and said to it, “Do not despise the food the Lord thy God has given thee to eat.”
Now, why did he do all of this? Because he wanted to be a spokesperson for God. He wanted God to speak through Him, and he thought that this was what was necessary. And many people did come to him, just as they did with many of the desert fathers and hermits of that time. People thought that these people were God’s mouthpieces. People would come to them for blessings and prayers, and listen to their words, which were written down so that you can still go and read them today in some libraries.
Let me ask you, Is this what you have to do? If you want to be a spokesperson for God, if you want to receive the Word of God, is that what you have to do? No. No. It is true that John did live in the wilderness, but it is not because he lived in the wilderness that he received the Word of God. It is not because he ate locust and honey and wore camel hair either. John received the Word of God because of two things. Back in Luke 1:80, we read, “So the child grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel.”
First, it says he grew and became strong in spirit. I could go to passage after passage after passage in the Bible to show how this happens, but let me just tell you how it’s done. If you want to become strong in spirit, you simply need to become strong in the Word. Study the Word. Chew on the Word. Meditate on the Word. Ephesians 6 tells us that the Sword of the Spirit is the Word of God. The best swordsmen are those who practice the most. If you want to become spiritually strong, if you want to become quick and deadly with the Sword of the Spirit, then you need to practice with the Word. That is what John did. He studied the Word and so became strong in Spirit.
But notice secondly that he lived in the desert. This shows us that he lived a life separate from the world. This may seem easy for John because he already lived in the wilderness — away from all the temptations and trials of living among people. But location is not the same thing as habits. Being separate from the world means you choose not to participate in worldly things or habits. Instead, you decide to fill your life with things that matter to God’s kingdom. To live separate from the world is to be a light in the darkness for people to seek out.
You can live separated from the world and still live in Chicago, or New York or Los Angeles. How? Well, it may look different for each person. The best way to discover how God wants you to live in the world but not be of it is to do the same thing John did: get into the Word of God. It will instruct you how to think and live and act and behave spiritually.
That is what John did. He got into the Word and so grew spiritually. And what he learned form the Word, during those 30 years of study, he knew had to be shared with his fellow Israelites. So by studying the Word and living separate from the world, we see in Luke 3:2 that the Word of God came to him in the wilderness. And when a prophet receives the Word of God, he cannot hold it back. The Word of God, rightly understood and applied, is like a fire in the bones. It must be taught. So this is what he does in Luke 3:3-6. It is there where we learn what he taught. He taught that people must prepare for the coming of the Messiah.
3. You must repent of sin to prepare for the Messiah (Luke 3:3-6)
Luke 3:3-6. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, saying:
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 brought low;
The crooked places shall be made straight
And the rough ways smooth;
And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Luke 3:4-6 come from Isaiah 40. We learn from these verses show us that John is the herald for the Messiah. And what a herald would declare is exactly what John declares here for the Messiah. It is prophesied that he will tell them to make the paths straight and the rough ways smooth. To fill the valleys and bring every mountain low. This of course, would remind those in Luke’s day of the large scale preparations that went on to prepare a city and the surrounding region for the coming of a king. As indicated in these verses, sometimes they would even undergo major excavation of the surrounding countryside in order to make the roads as smooth and straight as possible. They didn’t even want the king to weary himself, or his horse, by having to ride up and down mountains, so they would sometimes fill them in to make them level and flat.
And that is what Luke records here as being fulfilled by John the Baptizer. Notice this prophecy from Isaiah even mentions that the herald would come from the wilderness, just as was true of John. That he was in the region of the Jordan river also points to him being like the prophet Elijah who spent his last days in the Jordan river area (2 Kings 2:1-13). John was coming in the spirit and power of Elijah to herald the way for a king.
But John was not coming to proclaim just any ordinary king. He was proclaiming the King of Kings. It says there in Luke 3:4 that this king will be LORD. This means He will be divine, he will be God. He’s not just the son of another king — those are a dime a dozen. This King will be the Son of God Himself.
And do you see Luke 3:6? He was announcing the salvation of God that would be for all flesh, in other words, for all people. This doesn’t mean that all people would be saved, but that God would make salvation available to all people. So this is no ordinary king. Therefore, preparations were needed that were more than ordinary. For a physical king, you make physical preparations. But for the King of Kings, for the LORD of heaven and earth, you make spiritual preparations.
That is what John does in Luke 3:3. It says that he went preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. There are very few phrases in the Bible more misunderstood than this. John the Baptizer is not teaching that in order to get to heaven, they must repent and be baptized. Remember, John is preparing the way for the Messiah, he is straightening out crooked roads, and telling people to clean up the mess they have made of their lives. John the Baptizer is not preaching an evangelistic message here. He is not telling people how to get to heaven. His message is not the gospel message.
What he is telling them? Is says he came preaching a baptism of repentance. He is telling them how to clean up their life. He is telling them that the King is coming, and they need to get ready for His coming. His is a message of coming judgment. His is a message of “turn or burn.” We’ll see more of this in Luke 3:7-14, but this is a classic message of Old Testament prophets which John certainly got from his study of the Bible while in the wilderness. John was calling upon the Jewish people to clean up their lives. He is telling them to clean up their act, to clean up their minds.
Be very clear on this. He is not telling them how to get eternal life. We get eternal life by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Think of it as a mathematical equation: God’s grace plus our faith in Christ’s death equals eternal life. Baptism and repentance are nowhere in that equation.
Now, the confusion comes because of the phrase at the end of Luke 3:3. It says that this baptism of repentance is for the remission or forgiveness of sins. Some people read that and say, “See? In order to get to heaven, we need to have our sins forgiven, and John is telling them here that their sins are forgiven through baptism and repentance.” The Greek word here for remission or forgiveness, depending on which translation you have, is the word aphesis. It can be translated forgiveness or remission, but neither word really carries the full intent or meaning of the word.
When most of us think of forgiveness, we think of the kind of forgiveness we give other people. Somebody says something rude to us, and then later comes and says they are sorry, and we say, “I forgive you.” But we know that this person has a notoriously difficult time controlling their tongue, and even though we forgive them, we know they will probably say something rude to us in the future. We forgave them, but we fully expect them to continue in their pattern of mouthing off, and we know that we will probably have to forgive them again later. You see, the English word forgiveness doesn’t have a whole lot of power to change the other person.
But God’s forgiveness is full of power to help us change. The Greek word aphesis shows this. It is much stronger than simple forgiveness. Aphesis can be, and probably should be translated as “release.” Aphesis is release from sin. It always carries with it the idea of the release of captives, of setting prisoners free. Of smoothing out the rough places in your life. Of cleaning out those dirty closets in the back of your mind.
You see, sin is wrapped around us like chains or heavy ropes, and we are in bondage to sin. We are enslaved to sin. Aphesis is when those chains of sin are broken. Aphesis is when we no longer have to smoke that cigarette, when we no longer have to drink that alcohol, when we no longer have to look at those images on that website or watch that show late at night, when we no longer have to spend that money on that nice pair of shoes that we don’t really need. Aphesis is not just forgiveness. Oh, it is that, but it is much more. It is complete victory over sin and freedom from sin.
Faith alone in Christ alone grants us eternal life. But many Christians, after they have placed faith in Christ for eternal life, wonder why they still struggle with sin. Why they still sin just as much as they did before they were Christians. They read the Bible and they see that they have been forgiven of this sin, and that this sin was nailed to the cross with Christ, but for some reason, they just can’t get rid of it. Many people feel this very thing. They have believed in Jesus for eternal life, but there is still a pattern of sin in their lives which they just cannot get free from. Sometimes, they begin to doubt whether they are even saved. Sometimes, they wonder if they have lost their salvation.
If that is you, let me tell you now that if you have believed in Jesus for everlasting life, it is everlasting. If it is not everlasting life, it has the wrong name. You need to get that straight first. But if you know that you have placed faith in Christ alone for eternal life, and you are still struggling with sin, and you want this aphesis, you want this release, you want the chains to be broken, what do you need to do? You need to do what John the Baptizer is calling for here — you need to repent. Repentance is the Biblical way to get freedom and deliverance and release from the pattern of sin that is in your life.
What is repentance? It is the Greek word metanoia, and literally means “a change of mind.” But it is nearly always used in reference to turning from sin, and so that is the best definition of repentance. Repentance is a complete turning away from sin, and turning back to God. You have been walking down the road in one direction in sin and rebellion, and you make a 180 degree turn and start walking the other direction toward God and obedience. There is no turning by degrees. You can’t say, “Well, I want to give up my alcoholism, but it’s so hard to give up completely, so I’ll only have one drink a day instead of several.”
I know of one man who had a problem with pornography for years. He wanted to get out of it, but he just couldn’t. He realized that he was getting deeper and deeper into it over time, one small step at a time, going from softcore to harder and harder and harder, so he decided to try to back out in steps also. He continued to look at pornography, but only one step down from what he really wanted to look at. It never worked for him. He did finally get free, but only after a 180 degree turnaround, complete reversal, going cold turkey, not even watching some R and PG-13 movies, and being very careful what department store catalogs he looked through.
But he did one other thing which made all the difference. You see, turning from sin is only half of repentance. This man also turned toward God. That is the key to true and lasting victory over sin. The time and energy that was spent chasing after sin, must now be spent chasing after God. This man, whenever he got the desire to go to a certain website, instead opened his Bible. Whenever he got the urge to buy a certain magazine, he instead went and spent that money on a Christian book, or gave that money to the church.
So you see, true repentance is not just a 180 degree turn from the sin, but an all out, full bore, frantic sprint back toward God. And of course, you won’t have to run all the way back. Remember the story of the prodigal son? When God the Father sees you far off down the road, on your way home, he will run out to meet you with outstretched arms to welcome you home.
So do you want release from a certain sin in your life? Repent. Turn from it, and fill the void with the things of God. The time you spent on this sin – spend in the Bible insted. The money you spent, give it away or spend it on God’s work. Fill in the potholes in your life with the heavenly cement of God’s Word. Give Christ a straight road in your life.
Now, I’ve taken us quite far afield on this, so let us return to Luke 3. Maybe you have noticed that I have been talking only about repentance, but John is proclaiming the baptism of repentance. Some of you are wondering, “Will baptism help me get free from this sin? I’ve already been baptized. Should I get baptized again?” No, you see, the baptism here was a special kind of baptism reserved for the Jewish people alone.
There are seven different baptisms in Scripture. As believers during this church age, we experience only two of these seven — spirit baptism at the moment we believe in Jesus for eternal life, and water baptism as the first step of discipleship and following Christ. Neither one gives us eternal life. Spirit baptism happens automatically as a result of receiving eternal life, and water baptism is just an outward symbol, an outward sign, of what happened to us inwardly.
The baptism in Luke 3 is the baptism of repentance. It was also known as John’s Baptism. It was a water baptism for Jews only. It was called a mikveh. It was a Jewish ceremonial washing, and just like all of the water baptisms, it was symbolic. For the Jew who was baptized in this way, they were showing that they were turning their back on the corrupt religious and political system of that day, and turning to genuine, heart-felt obedience to God. The Jewish religious system and political scene had become very corrupt. We see Jesus butting heads with the religious and political rulers of the day. He clears out the temple twice because they are abusing their authority. Many of his parables and teachings are given to condemn them or their practices. Matthew 23 records Jesus blasting the Scribes and Pharisees.
The religious and political rulers of the day were very intent on outward appearances, and strict observance of the Old Testament law, but their hearts were far from God. They were hypocritical because they were more concerned with outward actions than they were with inward attitude. And John, as a prophet of God, understood this from the Old Testament, and he saw how corrupt Judaism had become, and so he went about preaching repentance — telling the Jews to turn from corrupt Judaism, and turn back to what God intended. The baptism was a way for Jews to show others that this is what they were going to do. Baptism, you see, is always a symbol showing death to the past, and being raised to a new life for the future. When Jews got baptized in this way, they were not showing that they had believed in Jesus for eternal life. Some of them might have believed, and some of them might yet believe (when the Messiah actually came on the scene), but it is just as possible that some of them never believed. They may have reformed their life, but they never believed, and so were not justified.
Sometimes, a Gentile would receive the Jewish baptism. Why? When a Gentile wanted to convert to Judaism, the Jews would require that person to be baptized into Judaism. The Gentile would be immersed in water to symbolize death and burial to his Gentile past, and then would be raised up from the water to symbolize being raised to a new life as a Jew. And now, John was calling the Jews to do something similar. He is calling Jews to recognize that Judaism is not the way God intended it to be, and to turn to God and His way.
Now, maybe you have caught it as I’ve been talking about this baptism, that I have frequently mentioned “turning.” Baptism symbolizes turning from the past, and turning toward a new life with God in the future. And what was repentance? It is a turning from your pattern of sin in the past, and turning toward God. And that is why we call this a baptism of repentance. Those Jews who wanted to repent of their ways, and turn toward God symbolized it with baptism. But it was the repentance, the turning, that was the key. So although people were getting baptized by him, it was the repentance that was key, and it was repentance that John was preaching. And as they repented, as they turned from their past, and turned back to God, they gained release from sin. They gained freedom from sin.
Do you want to be free from sin? The Bible calls you to repentance. This is what John preached. He preached the baptism of repentance. And we will learn more about this next week in Luke 3:7-14. But I want to encourage you, just as John was telling people to prepare for the coming of the king, you too must prepare for His second coming. He is coming again and He is coming soon. Are you ready? Are you prepared? Are your roads level or are they still bumpy? Are your streets clean or they still filled with trash? Are you ready for your King?
If He had shown up at your door last night, what would He have found you doing? Would He have found your house in order? Would He have found your life cleaned up? Would He have found you prepared for His coming? The truth is that all of us still have preparations that need to be made. And that’s okay, because Christ has not come back yet. But let us continue to make preparations, because He could return at any moment. Repent from any habit of sin in your life. Turn from it and return to God. That is how you prepare the way for the Lord in your own life.
Right now, many of you are probably thinking of something you need to fix in your life, or something you need release from. I know what I need to repent of in my own life. As I prepared this message this week, God deeply convicted me of a pattern of sin in my life that I need to turn from.
Do you have something you need to repent of? If so, resolve right now to turn from it, to make a full 180 degree turn away, and turn back toward God. Then the holes in your life will be repaired, and you will be prepared for the Lord’s coming.
Footnotes on Luke 3:1-6
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