Whether you love history, follow sports, or maybe geek out over epic television series, it is important to know the key players. So, let’s begin by introducing those who, at the time of Luke’s writing, were powerful, well-known, and greatly feared, but whose names have faded in our modern memory. Except for one. It is important to recognize that the nation of Israel was once again under the rule of cruel and ungodly men. As in the days of the Judges, God was about to send a deliverer, not a political one, but a divine one.
1 Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene,
2 Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.
Tiberius Caesar: Son of Augustus and grandfather of the horrible Caligula, Tiberius Caesar was a successful general, reluctant leader, and an unhappy person. He is known for his cruelty and severity. Pliny called him “the gloomiest of men.”
Pontius Pilate: He was the 5th governor of the province of Judaea. He had built a reputation for brutal massacres of the Jewish people. He was a weak leader who tried to appease powerful groups by punishing their weaker enemies. As a pattern, he followed the majority instead of justice, which he demonstrated most clearly by declaring Christ innocent and ordering him to be crucified to appease the mob.
Herod the Tetrarch, Philip the Tetrarch, Lysanius: Rulers and descendants of King Herod the Great, these puppet rulers were not actually kings. They were despised by those they ruled and had reputations of corruption and violence. Tetrarch means a fourth. When Herod the Great died, he divided his territory into four quarters. Herod Antipas, as he was also called, was the ruler of a quarter of the Judean territory, which included Galilee and the East Bank. Philip the Tetrarch of Iturea, his brother, ruled over the northeast portion of his father’s kingdom. Herod Antipas stole his wife, and then Phillip married his niece Salome. Lysanius ruled the western slopes and Mt. Hermon.
3 And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins;
4 As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth;
6 And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Those who came out to hear John in the wilderness were undoubtedly seeking salvation. Most were probably seeking salvation from their cruel oppressors. Those who heard the message of John and truly repented were to be introduced to Jesus, the Savior of the World. Isaiah promised that the Messiah would make things right for a nation that was going into captivity and misery. The crooked and dishonest things would one day be remedied. God would send a great leader that would redeem them. John the Baptist, the forerunner of the promised king, said to those living under the harshest conditions, get ready, the real king is coming.
7 Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
8 Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.
John’s words sound very harsh, especially if you are looking for someone to rescue you. He is addressing the issue of why they are coming to him. He’s asking, “what are you looking for?” He calls them out on their sin. When he calls some of them vipers, he is saying that there is something dangerous about them. The danger is that they have the idea that they are holy and in a special relationship with God, but the truth is they need to repent, truly, and realize how desperately far from God their sin and rebellion had taken them. Yes, there was a faithful remnant that believed in the promises of God, but they were a small minority. John is clarifying that genetic bloodlines would not be recognized in the kingdom of God. Jesus would shed his blood for all those who would come to Him in faith, no matter who they were descended from.
9 And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
John says judgment is coming. Your time is up. Everything that is of a form and a fashion or tradition would come up short. Only true repentance and faith in the living God would be able to stand. Jesus said, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” Matthew 10:34.
10 And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then?
11 He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.
This point is that it is time to make what you say you believe obvious in the way that you live. We need to learn this lesson today. We say we are the children of God, do we behave as if that’s true? Would anyone know that you believe the word of God? Here’s what you should do, John preaches, do what you say you believe. We’re not saved by our works, but if we worship the king of kings and the lord of lords, our lives should be markedly different from those who do not.
12 Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do?
13 And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you.
The hated publicans, considered traitors among the Jews, made a living by overcharging and cheating when collecting taxes. They ask, if judgment is coming, what should we do? How do we escape? The answer is to do your job as if you worked for God and not for Rome. In other words, work like you believe what God says.
14 And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.
Soldiers, employed by the evil men listed above, possibly involved in the most evil deeds they committed, are asking, “what shall we do?” Is there a chance for them to avoid being cut down and destroyed in the fire of judgment? The word of God is the answer. Follow the commandments of God and change your behavior. Live out what you know to be right. Your loyalty is to your God.
15 And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not;
16 John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire:
John spoke with authority because he was filled with the Spirit of God, and He is speaking His never changing truth. He’s told them to believe the word and obey it. He’s told them they are in danger of Judgement and they need to repent. The people look at him and recognize the truth he is speaking and start to consider that he is the messiah. John quickly corrects this assumption. John is there to tell them exactly how desperate their situation is. He is there to show them the hopelessness of their self-improvement and their overwhelming need for God’s grace. He is there to introduce them to the answer. What do we do to escape judgment? You need to be baptized with the Holy Ghost and with fire. Jesus Christ alone has the answer to the needs of the people.
17 Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable.
18 And many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people.
The fan in Jesus’ hand is an increase of the fires of judgment. The truth of His life will fulfill the law and prove once and for all that no one will withstand the wrath of God who is not in Christ. What shall we do? Honestly, repent, be baptized, and accept Christ. Only the cross of Calvary could save them and us.
Thank you for studying with us! God bless!