Luke 3:1–20 . . . Bible Study Summary with Videos and Questions

Meet John the Baptizer

The first four chapters of Luke's gospel intertwine the accounts of the birth announcements of both John and Jesus, along with significant childhood events. Although intertwined, the two accounts aren't identical: Both commence their ministry with the proclamation, "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand" (Matthew 3:1–2; 4:17); both men and their disciples baptized (John 3:22); and many of those who were baptized by John became followers of the Lord Jesus (John 10:40–42.

Yet, there were significant differences between John and his ministry and Jesus and his ministry and message. Almost without exception, it was John who stressed the differences between himself and Jesus, showing Jesus to be superior. John clearly distinguished their origin, as was made clear by Luke: Jesus was from above, while John was from below; Jesus was God, while John was but a man; Jesus was the bridegroom while John was the groom's friend; Jesus was the Messiah while John was the Messiah's forerunner; John's message stressed coming judgment while Jesus spoke of forgiveness and salvation.

John's Message as a Man

Today's text can be grouped as follows: (1) the setting, vv. 1–2 (shown below); (2) the message of John, vv. 3–6; (3) the meaning of John's message, vv. 7–14; (a) John and the Messiah, vv. 15–17 and (b) John's ministry terminated, vv. 18–20.

A man of distinction  As a very unique individual, John stood out from the crowd. A Nazirite from birth, his diet was distinctive; as a "desert man," he ate wild locusts and honey. Because he was a prophet, he dressed in the garb of Elijah the prophet.

A popular and powerful preacher.  Mark's account of the commencement of John's ministry makes it clear that John's ministry was widely known and widely sought (Mark 1:5). Mark informs us that even Herod had enjoyed listening to John, even though the message of John struck hard at his own sins (Mark 6:20).

A man with great insight into the sinfulness of people and society  Although he lived in remote wilderness places, John was able to grasp what was going on in the "big city." John not only rebuked Herod for taking another man's wife as his own, he also rebuked him for "all the wicked things he had done" (v. 19, shown below) and was able to put his finger on the specific sin that most-characterized the tax-gatherers and soldiers as well (vv. 12–14).

A man of integrity  John lived what he preached and preached what he lived, proclaiming his message forthrightly and forcefully. Lacking a fat bank account, John exhorted others to share with the needy (v. 11).

A man of humility  John's deep humility becomes particularly evident on several occasions. While John's ministry had become intense and widely acclaimed, we see in vv. 15–17 that the multitudes wondered whether he might in fact be the Christ; he humbly set them straight on who he was serving. Then, after the appearance of Jesus, whose own ministry began to overshadow John's, John is at his finest hour here. What a giant John was. How graciously he accepted his role and rejoiced in the success of the Savior.

John, the Last of the Old Testament Prophets

John was a prophet whose ministry was rooted in the Old Testament. In the first place, the appearance and ministry of John was prophesied in the Old Testament: See Isaiah 40:3–5 and Malachi 4:1–6. John didn't merely fulfill Old Testament prophecy, he spoke as an Old Testament prophet. His message was the same message that other Old Testament prophets had proclaimed.

• John spoke of the coming of the kingdom of God, but, rather than speaking of it only as a time of blessing, he spoke of "the wrath to come" judgment.

• John encouraged his audience to share their material possessions with those in need (v. 11) while the prophets of old had called upon Israel to do similarly (see Isaiah 58:6–8).

• John called upon Israel to show mercy and practice justice (vv. 13–14) as Prophet Malachi (and others) did (Malachi 3:5).

The Meaning of John's Preaching for Israel

John's message is similar to that of Old Testament prophets in a particularly important way: two themes and two messages. They all spoke of the future, of the Kingdom of God, of the Messiah, and of "things to come" in two different ways. The prophets spoke of the coming of the Lord as a time of judgment and a time of blessing, of the Messiah as being the great King who'd reign from the throne of David, and of the Suffering Servant who'd die for the sins of the world.

Similarly, John's ministry contained the same two themes and messages: judgment and God's grace and salvation. One theme was his exhortation to keep the Law of God, while the other was the promise that God would provide salvation apart from man's keeping of the Law. One of his messages was that Israel must prepare the way for the Lord, while the other was that the Lord would prepare the way for men.

In a political and religious context, John spoke of the Messiah's coming either as the judge who'd put down the wicked and establish His kingdom or as the "suffering Servant" who'd die for Israel's sins. It would soon become evident that Israel wouldn't repent, for many of those who came to John to be baptized had left without ever entering the water (Luke 7:29–30). Thus, the kingdom of God was rejected, along with her King! All of this in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. John's one ministry as a prophet — calling Israel to repentance — was a failure, as it was with all other prophets. With John's ministry, the preaching of the Law of the old covenant ceased: "The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since then, the gospel of the kingdom of God is preached..." (Luke 16:16).

From that point on, it's the new covenant. The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah spoke of it (Jeremiah 31:31–34). Thus, the Messiah must come to suffer in place of sinners, to be rejected by men and smitten of God. John was hoping that Israel would repent and keep the Law and that the promised blessings of the Law would come on Israel. With his own arrest, John began to see the failure of the old covenant. He began to question his ministry and that of the Messiah.

However, John's ministry has demonstrated, once and for all, that the blessing of Israel, in fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant, would never be achieved through the Mosaic Covenant, i.e., through the law-keeping of the nation Israel. Justification and blessing would only come by faith in the suffering, death, atonement, and resurrection of God's Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. John's ministry was to close, once and for all, that chapter in Israel's history on the Mosaic Covenant's law-keeping.

No one had ever been saved by law-keeping; neither would the kingdom of God ever be initiated by it. Grace must replace law. The Messiah's suffering would provide the means of forgiveness and escape from God's judgment. For Luke's readers, John's message was even more pointed. Luke was writing to a predominantly Gentile audience. In particular, Luke wrote to Theophilus (1:3). The question that a Gentile would want answered would be this: How can a Jewish Messiah, fulfilling Jewish prophecies and promises, bring salvation to Gentiles? Luke's answer, supported by the ministry of John the Baptist, was this: The Jewish system of law-keeping failed. It couldn't save Jews, nor could it save you. Thus, both Jews and Gentiles must be saved another way — through Christ Jesus.

What a beautiful example of ministry we see in John! Luke's account of the failure of John's ministry sets the stage for the grace of God to be made known through Christ's first coming, his death, burial, and resurrection. Let's be sure to appreciate John's boldness in proclaiming his message. His ministry made sin and salvation very personal for them and us. His "joy was full" (John 3:29) to have played a role in turning men to Christ, of having them follow Christ instead of himself. He was joyful to have his ministry terminate and Christ's ministry to perpetuate. He was willing to be a catalyst, and then to allow his ministry to pass away.

While John and his ministry are, in one sense, history, may we seek to emulate the spirit and motivation of that great saint of old; may our own ministries be modeled after his. "Thank you, John!"

It Makes You Wonder . . .
  • Q. 1  What's radical about John's message? What do "root" and "fruit" signify in v. 9?
  • Q. 2  What's the beginning of the end for John's ministry (vv. 19–20)? What does this illustrate about John?

This Week's Passage
Luke 3:1–20

New International Version (NIV)
[View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 3.]

 Watch this passage-specific video clip from Jesus Film Project titled "The Baptism of Jesus by John."

John the Baptist Prepares the Way

3 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar — when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene — 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
    "A voice of one calling in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. 5Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6And all people will see God's salvation.'"

7John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire."

10"What should we do then?" the crowd asked.

11John answered, "Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same."

12Even tax collectors came to be baptized. "Teacher," they asked, "what should we do?"

13"Don't collect any more than you are required to," he told them.

14Then some soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?"

He replied, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely — be content with your pay."

15The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16John answered them all, "I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." 18And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

19But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother's wife, and all the other evil things he had done, 20Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.