THE COMMENCEMENT of John's ministry is very fully dated in the opening two verses. They show that things were entirely out of course, government was vested in the Gentiles, and even in Israel things were in confusion, for there were two high priests instead of one. Hence repentance was the dominant note in his preaching. Earlier prophets had reasoned with Israel and recalled them to the broken law. John no longer does this, but demands repentance. They were to acknowledge that they were hopelessly lost on the ground of the law, and take their place as dead men in the waters of his baptism. It was "the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins." If they listened to John and repented, they were morally prepared to receive the remission of sins through the One who was about to come. Thus the path before the Lord would be made straight.
Note how this quotation from Isaiah speaks of Jehovah coming, and how this coming of Jehovah is obviously fulfilled in Jesus. Verse 5 states the same truth as we had in verses 52 and 53 of Luke 1, and verse 34 of Luke 2, only putting it into language of a more figurative sort. Verse 6 shows that since He who was about to come was One no less than Jehovah, the salvation He would bring was not to be confined within the narrow boundaries of Israel, but go forth to "all flesh." Grace was about to come, and it would overflow in all directions. This grace is one of the special themes of the Gospel of Luke.
But John not only preached repentance in a general way, he also made it a very pointed and personal matter. Crowds flocked to him, and his baptism threatened to become a popular service, almost a fashionable recreation. Things work in just the same way today: any religious ordinance, such as baptism, very easily degenerates into a kind of popular festival. Evidently John was not in the least afraid of offending his audience and spoiling his own popularity. Nothing could be more vigorous than his words recorded in verses 7-9. He told the people what they were very plainly; he warned them of wrath ahead; he called for the genuine repentance which would bring forth fruits; he showed that no place of religious privilege would avail them, for God was about to judge the very roots of things. The axe was now about to cut, not in the way of lopping off branches but of smiting at the root so as to bring down the whole tree. A very graphic figure, this; and fulfilled not in the execution of outward judgment, such as will mark the Second Advent, but in that moral judgment which was reached at the cross. The Second Advent will be characterized by the fire which will consume the dead tree: the First Advent led to the cross, where the judicial sentence of condemnation was promulgated against Adam and his race; or in other words, the tree was cut down.
John demanded deeds, not words, as the practical fruits of repentance, and this led to the people's question, recorded in verse 10. The publicans and the soldiers followed with similar questions. By his answers in each case John put his finger upon the particular sins that marked the different classes. Yet, though the answers varied, we can see that covetousness provoked all the wrongs that he dealt with. Of all the evil weeds that flourish in the human heart covetousness is about the most deep-seated and difficult to deal with: like the dandelion its roots penetrate to a great depth. True repentance leads to true conversion from the old way of sin, and John knew this.
Thus John prepared the way of the Lord, and not only so he also faithfully pointed to Him, and did not for one moment permit the people to think great things of himself. He proclaimed himself to be but the humblest servant of the great Person who was coming-so humble as to be unworthy to perform the very menial service of unlacing His sandal. The Coming One was so great that He would baptize men with the Holy Ghost and with fire: the former for blessing, and the latter for judgment, as the next verse makes abundantly plain. Here again we may notice that the two Advents are not as yet quite plainly distinguished. There was a baptism of the Spirit, recorded in Acts 2, as the result of the First Advent, but the baptism with fire, according to verse 17, awaits the Second Advent.
Luke records John's faithful ministry and then briefly dismisses him from the record in order to make way for Jesus. The imprisonment of John did not take place just at this juncture, but Luke deviates from the historical order to set the thing before us in a moral and spiritual way. The Elijah-like ministry of John disappears before the One who was to be the vessel of the grace of God; and who was baptized, and thus introduced to His ministry. We are not even told here that it was John who baptized Him, but we are told that He was praying when baptized, a thing not mentioned elsewhere. This Gospel evidently emphasizes the perfection of our Lord's humanity. Grace for man is vested in One who is the perfect Man, and the very first feature of perfection in man is that of dependence upon God. Prayer is an expression of that dependence, and we shall notice in this Gospel how many times it is put on record that Jesus prayed. This is the first instance.
On this praying and dependent Man the Holy Ghost descended in bodily shape like a dove, while the Father's voice declared Him to be the beloved Son, the Object of all the Divine delight. Thus at last the truth of the Trinity became manifest. The Spirit became for a moment visible; the Father became audible; the Son was here in flesh and blood, and consequently not only visible and audible but tangible also. It is very wonderful that the heaven should be opened, and all its attention focused upon a praying Man on earth. But in that praying Man God was to be known, for it was pleasing that "in Him should all fullness dwell" (Col. 1: 19).
The Father's voice having thus owned Him as the beloved Son, Luke now introduces His genealogy through Mary to show how really He is also Man. Matthew traces His descent down from Abraham, the depository of promise, and David, the depository of royalty. Luke traces Him up to Adam and to God, for it is simply His Manhood that is the point, and that was through Mary, for Joseph was only supposed to be His father. He is truly a Man though the Son of God. He is the Second Man, the Lord from heaven, the One overflowing with the grace of God.
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