Click here for an audio version of this blog post.
It was now the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius, the Roman emperor. Pontius Pilate was governor over Judea; Herod Antipas was ruler over Galilee; his brother Philip was ruler over Iturea and Traconitis; Lysanias was ruler over Abilene. 2 Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests. At this time a message from God came to John son of Zechariah, who was living in the wilderness. 3 Then John went from place to place on both sides of the Jordan River, preaching that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven. 4 Isaiah had spoken of John when he said,
“He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!
Clear the road for him!
5 The valleys will be filled,
and the mountains and hills made level.
The curves will be straightened,
and the rough places made smooth.
6 And then all people will see
the salvation sent from God.’”
7 When the crowds came to John for baptism, he said, “You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? 8 Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. 9 Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.”
10 The crowds asked, “What should we do?”
11 John replied, “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.”
12 Even corrupt tax collectors came to be baptized and asked, “Teacher, what should we do?”
13 He replied, “Collect no more taxes than the government requires.”
14 “What should we do?” asked some soldiers.
John replied, “Don’t extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay.”
– Luke 3:1-14 [New Living Translation]
We were ready to check out of the hotel, but there was a credit on our account, and we wanted to use it for an early lunch. When I checked with the hotel front desk they suggested that we wait to check out until after we had eaten and signed for our lunch. That way we would be more easily able to get the credit applied to our bill and have a free lunch of sorts. Sometimes timing is everything…or at least something.
Luke anchors this part of his Jesus biography in a very specific time. It was the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius. Pontius Pilate was governor. Herod Antipas was ruler over Galilee. Philip was ruler over Iturea and Traconitis. Lysanias was ruler over Abilene. Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests. At this time John the Baptizer appears and calls people to repent, and to show that they had truly repented by the way they lived.
This is no Once-Upon-A-Time fairy tale. This is an historical event in a specific place and time – sometime between 27-29 AD. But there is more here. Tiberius was known as a ruthless and cruel Roman emperor. Pontius Pilate was ineffectual and given to over-reaction and unnecessary brutality. Herod’s family was corrupt and cruel. Such was the political situation as John begins to call people to repentance.
I note that the powerful, ruthless, cruel, and corrupt leaders – who need more than the others to repent – are not moved by John’s call. The ones who were powerful and in control were more concerned in keeping their power than in connecting with the Ultimate Power over all creation and creatures. Their ears were deaf to John’s call, and their hearts were closed to their need to repent.
Against that backdrop the people come to be baptized. And the very ones who come John calls a bunch of snakes! This is not the Dale Carnegie manner of How to Win Friends and Influence People! But John is not interested in winning friends. He is committed to leveling the playing field in preparation for Jesus’ public ministry. He is preparing the way for Jesus to come. He is the voice in the wilderness, raising valleys and razing mountains. He is making a straight path to God. And it’s a path that is found in repentance.
The importance of timing here is two-fold. It anchors these events in history, not philosophy. And as such it ties us to that time and situation. We have all manner of leaders and powerful people who care more about their power than their relationship with God. But even if they don’t repent we must. And that is the second truth: now is the time for us to repent. Joe Biden is President of the United States. Vladimir Putin is President of Russia. Greg Abbot is governor of Texas. Matthew Harrison is President of the LCMS. Michael Newman is President of the LCMS Texas District.
You might have thoughts about each of these men and their need to repent. But that is for them to deal with. We each must repent and rejoice in knowing that God has prepared a level and straight path to life and salvation: the path of faith that leads us to Jesus.