Preparing the Way: context

1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert. 3 He went throughout (the) whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. 5 Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Our gospel comes from The Gospel according to Luke, the first part of a two-volume work (with Acts of the Apostles) that continues the biblical history of God’s dealings with humanity found in the Old Testament, showing how God’s promises to Israel have been fulfilled in Jesus and how the salvation promised to Israel and accomplished by Jesus has been extended to the Gentiles. The principal divisions of Luke’s Gospel are:

Prologue (1:1–4)
Infancy Narrative (1:5–2:52)
Preparation for the Public Ministry (3:1–4:13)
Ministry in Galilee (4:14–9:50)
Journey to Jerusalem: travel narrative (9:51–19:27)
Teaching Ministry in Jerusalem (19:28–21:38)
Passion Narrative (22:1–23:56)
Resurrection Narrative (24:1–53)

Here in the beginning of the Gospel, we should be especially aware of the Infancy Narrative that immediately precedes our Sunday gospel. A more detailed outline of that section might be:

The Growth of Jesus, Son of God (2:40–52)
As the outline shows, Luke’s narrative of connecting the promises of the OT to the fulfillment in the NT has very personal lynch pins: the interweaving of John and Jesus as a movement from promise to fulfillment.

Critical to our understanding of the role of this narrative section is the solemn declaration: “… the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.” (3:2) This is a narrative flashback to the intertwined accounts of the births of John and Jesus in 1:5–2:52 and presents the first in a series of ways in which the appearances of John and Jesus here are deeply rooted in that earlier material. We left John as a maturing boy in the wilderness, awaiting his public appearance to Israel (1:80). He is still in the wilderness but now at the threshold of his public ministry. He is the “son of Zechariah,” a reminder of the awe-inspiring intervention of God leading to the birth of a son to Zechariah and Elizabeth, too old to have children. The mention of Zechariah also ushers back into view the promises to Zechariah from Gabriel and Zechariah’s own celebration of God’s eschatological visitation, both underscoring John’s role in the restoration of Israel (1:14–17, 68–79). It is a quite economic way to lay the groundwork for his depiction of the adult John: he is the one foretold, the divine gift whose birth has already brought honor to his disgraced mother, and the prophet.

In the background of our Gospel, lays the identities of John and Jesus already presented in earlier chapters. John was to be “prophet of the Most High” (1:76), a role he now fulfills; and Jesus was to be designated “Son of God” (1:35)—an identity affirmed by God (3:21–22), confirmed by Jesus’ heritage (3:38), allowed but perversely interpreted by the devil (4:3, 9), and embraced as a mission by Jesus (4:1–13).

As Joel Green (159-160) points out, there are other themes, first raised in the earlier chapter that appear in our account include:

  • the wilderness (1:80; 3:2, 4);
  • the on-going reference to Isaiah 40 which proclaims God’s universal salvation (1:17, 19, 76; 3:4–6, 18);
  • The universality of God’s desire that all be saved (1:55, 73; 2:1–2, 10, 14, 31–32; 3:1, 6);
  • the role of John as one who prepares the way (1:14–17, 76–77; 3:4–6);
  • the activity of the Holy Spirit (1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25–27; 3:16, 22, 4:1); and
  • repentance and forgiveness of sins (1:16–17, 76–77; 3:3, 8–14)

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