Luke introduces his account of the ministry of Christ with a salutation to “most excellent Theophilus.” We don’t know who Theophilus was. The name means “lover of God.” Luke says he has had “perfect understanding of all things from the very first” and will present them “in order” to Theophilus. Just what Luke meant by “in order” is disputable. Did he mean chronological order, or did he mean something else?
Matthew begins his narrative of the King with a genealogy of Jesus. That would be of special importance to the Jewish—especially rabbinical—mind. (Royal lineage was determining in questions of throne rights, especially with a messianic claim.) But Luke masterfully conducts a narrative that unfolds in argumentative order designed to press upon a universal audience the authority of the Savior of the world.
Luke tells the story of the arrival of the Hope of Israel and the Hope of mankind. He begins his beginning with the story of two supernatural births. The first is Zacharias and Elizabeth’s child John. He arrives with prophecy. He will arrive first on the scene later as John the Baptist, calling his nation to repentance. It is his firstness that Luke underscores, both in his birth and in his role as herald of the coming King.
John the Baptist’s Message: Prepare the Way
John’s message will be one of preparation. It is a call for action. Israel must prepare a highway for a King. A highway is a graded high way, elevated and evened for official transit. John the Baptist takes his comparison from a prophetic passage in Malachi prophesying his role. John’s message like that of his precursor Elijah is not all that creative. It consists almost entirely of what has been scripted for his role.
Preparing a royal highway is of course metaphorical. It has nothing to do with a road contractor’s straightening, elevating and smoothing of a throughway for official use. It has much to do with the removal of inner obstacles. The bulldozing of the inner man, making the crooked places straight, blasting boulders into gravel to be hauled away. Repentance is the first business in the preparing of a highway of the heart for the entrance of the King. And that brings us to the episode in Luke 3.
John’s message is an alarm to prepare a royal highway. A great King is on the way, and there is much to be done—much that shouldn’t have been left this long to be done. The nation is sick. It needs shock treatment, and that it will get from John. Repentance is the preparation required for the arrival of the King to His place of rule.
Queen Elizabeth I’s frequent visits—“progresses” they were called—to the estates of her wealthy subjects were much anticipated and often dreaded because of the enormous expense. Not only did the house itself need to be prepared and the royal presence area where she would sit and receive visitors need to be lavishly decorated, but the approach to the house must also be prepared. It involved a cost that could well bankrupt a wealthy family. So there is also a bankruptcy involved in the making ready of a heart for the great King.
John the Baptist was the prophesied herald of Israel’s coming King. Luke will make clear eventually that He was not only Israel’s King. His throne rights extended further. The King will take up John’s message when John has performed his role.
The event in chapter 3 immediately follows the story of the boy Jesus. Luke has completed that part of his story of Jesus’ beginnings and turns abruptly to the ministry of John. John is an introducer. His message is an introduction to salvation’s threshold. Both John and his message are preparation for the coming of the King.
John the Baptist’s Warning: Repent
John’s warnings are specific. His opening words are blunt, directed toward an undifferentiated multitude but aimed particularly—I think—at the religious frauds. “O generation [offspring] of vipers [snake spawn], who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Why are you here? He challenges them not to put confidence in their descent from Abraham. Salvation is a personal, not institutional or cultural, deliverance.
Then John starts singling out groups among his audience. Or rather they come in groups in response to his message. He has told the “generation of vipers” to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance. I think this does not imply that works have a contribution to make to their salvation. They are an indicator of the seriousness of the comers. They need to understand the cost. They want to learn the cost. “What shall we do?” they say. John will oblige. He will show their areas of defect.
John has distinct words for each group. The first are for “the people” in general. Be unselfish, he says. That cuts to the quick of everyone. Then come the publicans, the tax collectors. Don’t take more from the people than you’re entitled to. Forget your personal cut exceeding the required amount. Don’t be greedy. Then the soldiers. Don’t be cruel. Don’t make false charges, perhaps referring to extortion threats. And be content with your wages. That circles back to the publican vice.
Don’t be ungenerous. Don’t be dishonest. Don’t be greedy. Don’t be cruel. Don’t complain. Notice the do’s and don’ts. We say that works have nothing to do with salvation. The error of meritorious works for salvation was the great central claim of the Reformers. So, what does that message, the Gospel message, have to do with what John is telling these members of the crowd to do? It has plenty to do with it.
John the Baptist is, as noted, an introducer. He has a role to announce the coming of the King. His message is also an introduction. It is the presence space for the King’s receiving of petitioners. There is a protocol with standards to be respected by visitors to a royal monarch or to our President, like him or not. John is acquainting the multitude with what is expected of them if they are to stand before the King and be received by Him. They must have repentant hearts. Repentance-free belief is not enough.