Preparing the Way: repent

…the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert

Luke’s phrase in 3:2, “the word of God came,” is reminds us of Luke’s core and central focus on God. The phrase clearly identifies the source of divine inspiration behind John’s work but also puts us on notice that Luke’s emphasis on God as the story’s primary actor will be carried forward and enlarged. Other evidences of this most intrinsic element show up in this section—for example, the citation of Scripture by the narrator (3:4–6) who thus presents God’s own perspective on John’s ministry, by Jesus (4:4, 8, 12) who is engaged in a process of discerning the way of God, and by the devil (4:10–11) who tries to garner the authoritative voice of God for his own agenda of frustrating God’s purpose; the activity of the Holy Spirit, God’s empowering and guiding agent (3:16, 22; 4:1); the voice of God, heard by Jesus and Luke’s audience, breaking into the narrative in a way that echoes his voice to Israel in the past (3:22); the genealogy of Jesus (3:23–28), showing Jesus’ relation to Israel’s past, recalling significant aspects of the story of God’s interaction with his people, and testifying to the relation of Jesus to God as his Son; and above all the account of Jesus’ test in the wilderness (4:1–13), pitting the aim of God and the design of the devil against each other.

So, we are reminded that, though the narrative spotlight turns first on John then on Jesus, this is not their story. God is the primary actor around whose purpose the narrative develops. In 1:5–2:52 Luke has anticipated the roles of John and Jesus in God’s plan. Will they embrace God’s aim and serve his design? This is the central question Luke that plays out in this Gospel.

He went throughout (the) whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins

The basic meaning of the verb baptizo is “to wash,” which is how it is translated in Luke 11:38 (re: ritual washing before meals). The word often also carries, in context, ritual or purifying aspects to the washing. This image is used by Luke in Acts 22:16: “Get up, and have yourself baptized (baptisai) and your sins washed away (apolouo), calling on his name.” When one surveys the reports in the Gospels concerning John’s baptism (Mark 1:2–6), the origin and significance of which was debated (Matt 21:25; Mark 11:30; Luke 20:4), one notices:

  1. John’s action of baptizing with water and his association of baptism with the preaching of repentance (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3);
  2. the actions of the people and of the tax collectors in going out to John (Matt 3:7) “to be baptized by him” (Luke 3:7, 12; Matt 3:5ff.; Mark 1:5); and
  3. the Baptist’s hope that God would respond to repentance with the gift of forgiveness and purification.

Consequently, when the people and the tax collectors were baptized, they acknowledged thereby the critique which touched their lives (Luke 3:1–14) and “acknowledged the righteous [dikaioo] of God” (7:29). On the opposite side stood “the Pharisees and the lawyers.” Since they were not baptized by John, they “rejected the plan of God for themselves” and brought upon themselves the judgment of God (7:30).

John’s baptism put one on God’s side – perhaps even in a right relationship with God (a possible meaning for dikaioo) – even for the tax collectors. Refusing John’s baptism was a rejection of God’s purpose, even for those who lived moral, obedient lives. (Note: as important as Luke makes John’s baptism, he also makes a clear distinction in his Gospel and in Acts, between John’s baptism and the baptism directed by Jesus (Luke 3:16; Acts 1:5; 11:16; 18:25; 19:3-5).

There is a geographical bend to John’s baptizing in the region of the Jordan. In an area just north of the Dead Sea is Al-Maghtas, what we Christians know as “Bethany beyond the Jordan” (in modern-day Jordan). It is in the wilderness even today. In Deuteronomy 34, Moses reached the precipice of Mt. Nebo overlooking Al-Maghtas and at last could look into Canaan, the land promised to Abraham and his descendants. Moses looked over and beyond the Jordan into the place of promise that the righteous would inherit. Tradition holds that this was the place where Joshua led the people Israel into Canaan, crossing the Jordan River. This is the place where Elijah was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot (ref: Luke 1:17). This is the place were John cried out to prepare the way of the Lord and baptized for repentance of sin – and to renew the covenant with God – crossing over into promise as did their ancestors with Joshua – entering into righteousness.

“Repentance” and “repenting” are important words in Luke/Acts. The verb occurs in these books 14 times and the noun 11 times, accounting for ~50% of the usage in the NT. For Luke, repentance is the most important characteristic of Christians. The Greek word group metanoeo/metanoia is a combination of a word for “mind” (noeo/nous) and a prefix (meta) meaning “after” = “after-thought” or “second thoughts”; or meaning “change” = “change in one’s mind or thinking (upon reflection)”. Key for the NT understanding of the word is OT šûb (“turning around,” in the sense of a turning away from present things and returning to the point of departure). The LXX (Septuagint) translates šûb as metanoeo/metanoia almost without exception.

In John’s baptism for repentance, one can easily connect the baptism with a broader call for the people of Israel to return to the “point of departure” – to return to the very place at which they entered the promised land as covenant people of God. Now they need to “turn away” from all that would hold them from or diver them away from the covenant, the righteous of God.

As Green notes (171), “John follows biblical precedent in insisting on the correlation of cleansing and moral rectitude. Second, his emphasis on repentance signals his understanding that the status quo of his socio-historical environment has been found wanting. As such, his message constitutes a prophetic appeal for people to turn their backs on previous loyalties and align themselves fundamentally with God’s purpose. Third, by definition the forgiveness of sins has a profound communal dimension; as sin is the means by which persons exclude themselves from community with and the community of God’s people, so forgiveness marks their restoration to the community.”


Notes

3:2 The word of God came to John: Luke is alone among the New Testament writers in associating the preaching of John with a call from God. Luke is thereby identifying John with the prophets whose ministries began with similar calls. In Luke 7:26 John will be described as “more than a prophet”; he is also the precursor of Jesus (Luke 7:27), a transitional figure inaugurating the period of the fulfillment of  prophecy and promise.

3:3 a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. See commentary for notes on baptism, repentance and forgiveness of sins.  Though the Greek term for repentance means “a change of mind,” the Semitic concept involves a “turning,” an attitude that brings a change of direction (1 Kings 8:47; 13:33; Ps 78:34; Is 6:10; Ezek 3:19; Amos 4:6). A walk with God means submission to him and a change of direction.

Sources:

  • Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke in The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997) 165-74
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC.

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