In 1984 Marla and I attended church while we were on vacation in San Diego. The speaker that morning had left the pastorate to get involved in the political movement known as the Religious Right. His topic was “The Second Most Important Day of Your Life.” He told us that the most important day of our lives was the day we trusted Christ as Savior. He got that right! But, the second most important day of our lives, he said, would be when we went to the polls and voted for Ronald Reagan for a second term!
Although I wouldn’t rank that day among the 100 most important days of my life, the man was right that day in his assessment of the moral decline of our nation. Problems like abortion, pornography, widespread sexual immorality, the breakdown of the family, violence, and the prohibition of any Christian expression in our public schools are alarming. I’m glad that there are some godly politicians and Christian leaders who are trying to fight these evils through the legislative process.
But I also believe that it is ultimately futile and misguided for Christians to put their hope in the political process to fix the rampant evils of our society. To try to bring America back to traditional family values and moral reform through politics is like trying to put a tuxedo on a pig. Even if you get it on him, it won’t do much long-term good, because you haven’t changed the nature of the pig. In times of moral declension, what the world needs most is not a political solution.
When times are bad, the message we need is the good news of God’s salvation.
Through the gospel, God goes to the heart of the problem, which is the human heart. When sinners repent and believe the gospel, they will change morally from the inside out. The preaching of the gospel is clearly God’s solution for the moral problems facing this evil world. Luke begins this new section that introduces the ministry of Jesus Christ by listing the political and spiritual leaders at the time when the forerunner, John the Baptist, began to preach. It illustrates that …
Luke lists these leaders to show us that the gospel is rooted in actual history. It is not a fairy story that illustrates spiritual or moral truths. It is true history that happened at a particular time and place. Because of several chronological problems, there is debate as to the exact year that John began his ministry, but it was somewhere around A.D. 29. Luke begins at the top: Tiberius was Caesar. He was the stepson of Augustus and reigned from A.D. 14-37. He was not a notoriously evil man, like his successor, Caligula, or his later successor, Nero, but neither was he a godly man. His mention reminds Luke’s readers that Rome had dominion over Israel.
Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea from 26 to 36. He would become infamous for delivering Jesus over to be crucified in order to placate the Jewish leaders. Herod Antipas was the son of the wicked Herod the Great. He reigned over Galilee from 4 B.C. to A.D. 39. He would later imprison and then behead John. Herod’s brother Philip ruled over a region to the east and north of Galilee. Lysanias was governor of Abilene, further to the northeast.
The prominent spiritual leaders were Annas and Caiaphas, whom Luke mentions as sharing one high priesthood. Annas had been the high priest from A.D. 6 to 15, but had been deposed by the Roman authorities. Several of his sons and eventually his son-in-law, Caiaphas, replaced him (A.D. 18-36). But Annas wielded the power and retained the title, so that the two men could be referred to under one high priesthood. But even though it was a spiritual office, it is clear from the New Testament that neither of these men knew God or was concerned about spiritual matters. They were politicians who cared about their own power and prestige. It was in this corrupt political and spiritual situation, with Israel under Rome’s thumb, that John began his ministry.
It had been 400 years since there had been a prophet in Israel, calling the people to spiritual renewal and reform. Bad times abound, but times are especially bad when there is no word from the Lord. Those who knew God and waited for the consolation of Israel must have despaired at times. But they knew that what they needed was not better politicians. They needed a word from God.
God had prophesied through Isaiah and later through Malachi that He would send His messenger before the coming of Messiah (Isa. 40:1-3; Mal. 3:1; 4:5, 6). Finally, 400 years after Malachi, “there came a man sent from God whose name was John” (John 1:6). If you ask why God waited so long when the world was in such desperate need for the Savior, my answer is simple: I don’t know, and neither does anybody else. We do know that God is sovereign and all-wise and that He moves in history in His perfect time (Gal. 4:4).
In this dark time of political and spiritual corruption, “the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness” (Luke 3:2). That phrase should affect us like a beam of sunlight and a breath of fresh air would come to trapped miners: “The word of God came to John”! If Luke had said that in these bleak times the word of a new government plan to reduce poverty had come to Pilate, we would say, “So what?” If Luke had said that the word of a new program to increase religious involvement among the Jews had come to Annas and Caiaphas, we would say, “Ho hum!” What the world needs when times are bad is not new political or religious programs. The world needs a word from God.
John was not in Rome or Jerusalem, the centers of power. He was in the wilderness. God often works apart from worldly channels. John was not sitting out there cooking up his plan for how to have a successful ministry. The text literally reads, “The word of God came upon John.” G. Campbell Morgan observes, “The force of the preposition is that of pressure from above. The word of the Lord came upon him, pressed down upon him from above. Here is the qualification for preaching. The message of God comes upon a man” (The Gospel According to Luke [Revell], pp. 47-48).
I agree with Morgan and other commentators that a man needs a special call from God to preach His Word. It need not be mystical or miraculous, but he needs a strong inner sense that God has called him to the work. Otherwise, when tough times of discouragement or opposition come, as they surely will if a man preaches the truth, he will not stay in the battle.
A man who preaches God’s Word must always remember that it is not his own word or ideas that he proclaims, but God’s Word. Sometimes, as we will see in a moment, God’s Word is not warm, fuzzy and popular. If a preacher becomes a man-pleaser, he ceases to please God (Gal. 1:10). Instead of proclaiming God’s Word, he becomes a politician trying to keep his popularity ratings high.
During the Gulf War, a man wrote to his senator urging him to support the ejection of Iraq from Kuwait. He received two separate replies from the senator’s office. The first letter agreed with him and stated the senator’s strong support for President Bush’s response to the crisis. The second letter, sent by mistake, thanked the man for opposing the war and pointed out that the senator had voted against the war resolution! That senator was like another politician who was asked where he stood on an issue. He said, “I have friends who are for it and friends who are against it, and I am with my friends.”
In bad times we desperately need an authoritative word from God, proclaimed by His faithful messenger. What is that word?
John came “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:3). The message of forgiveness of sins addresses all people everywhere in every age, because all have sinned and thus are alienated from God. The primary need of every person is reconciliation with God through the forgiveness of his sins.
Luke quotes from Isaiah 40:3-5 to show that John’s ministry was a fulfillment of that prophecy. The Hebrew text is translated, “Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it,” i.e., God’s glory. But Luke reads, “all flesh will see the salvation of God,” because he is not quoting from the Hebrew version, but from the Greek Septuagint (LXX, ca. 200 B.C.). The LXX added the phrase “salvation of God” as “a contextual equivalent” (Darrel Bock, Luke [Baker], 1:291), where “salvation” explains more specifically the way in which men will see God’s glory, namely, through His saving work in Jesus Christ. God is glorified when people are reconciled to Him through the atonement Christ provided on the cross. Note three things about this salvation the world so desperately needs:
“The salvation of God” means that God is the originator and provider of salvation. Luke has already used this particular word in 2:30, where Simeon holds the baby Jesus and proclaims, “My eyes have seen Your salvation.” What we are saved from is our sin and the impending judgment of God because of our sin. Thus a key element in salvation is the forgiveness of sins (3:3; see Luke 1:77). Since only God can forgive sins, and the Bible is clear that He does it only by His free grace, no man can save himself by earning it through any amount of good deeds or human merit or effort. Salvation comes totally from God who planned it before the foundation of the world, announced it through His prophets, and sent His messenger John and His Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The great British preacher, Charles Spurgeon, tells of the time, just months after his conversion at age 15, when it dawned on him that his salvation was totally from God. He was sitting in church when, he says (Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 1:165),
The thought struck me, “How did you come to be a Christian?” I sought the Lord. “But how did you come to seek the Lord?” The truth flashed across my mind in a moment—I should not have sought Him unless there had been some previous influence in my mind to make me seek Him. I prayed, thought I, but then I asked myself, How came I to pray? I was induced to pray by reading the Scriptures. How came I to read the Scriptures? I did read them, but what led me to do so? Then, in a moment, I saw that God was at the bottom of it all, and that He was the Author of my faith, and so the whole doctrine of grace opened up to me, … and I desire to make this my constant confession, “I ascribe my change wholly to God.”
Writing to his father about this experience, he said, “I trust that I feel sufficiently the corruption of my own heart to know that, instead of doing one iota to forward my own salvation, my old corrupt heart would impede it, were it not that my Redeemer is mighty, and works as He pleases” (ibid., p. 115).
Salvation by man’s efforts or merits does not have the power to change the corrupt human heart. But God is mighty to save. The only message that will bring relief to this evil world is the message that salvation is from the Lord.
“John came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” God’s message to a lost and hurting world begins with the issue of sin. Jesus taught that when the Holy Spirit came, He would convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8). Until people are brought before God in His holiness and wrath against all sin, they do not realize their desperate situation. They justify themselves by comparing themselves with others, and they think that God will be tolerant on the day of judgment. So they assume that all will be okay on that day.
In a great section in his Institutes of the Christian Religion ([Westminster Press], 3.12.1), John Calvin argues that we can never be justified before God by our own good works. He points out that before we compare ourselves with one another and so acquit ourselves, we need to remember that we will one day stand, not before a human court, but before God’s heavenly court. He asks:
How shall we reply to the Heavenly Judge when he calls us to account? Let us envisage for ourselves that Judge, not as our minds naturally imagine him, but as he is depicted for us in Scripture: by whose brightness the stars are darkened [Job 3:9]; by whose strength the mountains are melted; by whose wrath the earth is shaken [cf. Job9:5-6]; whose wisdom catches the wise in their craftiness [Job xamine the deeds of men: Who will stand confident before his throne?
Luke’s quote from Isaiah 40:3-5 shows us in figurative language the problem that sinful human hearts have in receiving the King of kings and His salvation. Isaiah pictures the scene when a king announced that he would visit a remote village. The rocky, twisted, up-and-down mountain trail was good enough for the villagers, but it was not suitable for the king. The village needed to get a road crew out there to straighten out the path, to fill in the ravines and level the mountains in the way, to remove the rocks and fill in the potholes, so that the king had a smooth, straight road for his arrival.
It’s a spiritual picture. If we just have to do with one another, we can tolerate the twisted, rocky, potholed ways of our heart. But if the King of Glory is coming, we’re in big trouble! Our hearts are full of ravines of sin and impurity. There are mountains of pride and self-righteousness in the way. We walk the crooked paths of deceit and falsehood. There are the rough, rocky, and potholed roads of greed, jealousy, self-will, blame, and disobedience. The King doesn’t travel on those kinds of roads!
Don’t misapply the analogy. It is not teaching that you must remove every trace of sin and corruption before you can receive the King into your life. That would be impossible! But the Holy Spirit must convict you of the awful sinfulness of your heart, so that you recognize your desperate need for God’s salvation. You must face the bad news about yourself as a sinner before you can welcome God’s gracious salvation.
Repentance and faith are often linked in Scripture and are the flip sides of the same coin. Repentance has the main idea of turning (Luke 1:16, 17) or changing one’s thinking and behavior. It involves recognizing our sin and alienation from God so that, rather than continuing in the same direction of self-will and disobedience, we turn back to God and appeal to His mercy. Faith is the hand that receives God’s mercy or grace. Faith lays hold of Jesus Christ as the perfect Substitute who died for our sins. Forgiveness means that God releases us from the penalty of our sins because His Son Jesus bore that penalty for us, and we are trusting in Him. Thus in summarizing the gospel message to the disciples after the resurrection, Jesus said, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day; and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46, 47).
Repentance and faith are not something you must do to earn salvation. The shed blood of Christ merited salvation for every sinner who will lay hold of Him. Repentance and faith are God’s gracious gifts that enable us to receive His mercy. J. C. Ryle explains,
There is nothing meritorious in this. It forms no part whatever of the price of our redemption. Our salvation is all of grace, from first to last. But the great fact still remains, that saved souls are always penitent souls, and that saving faith in Christ, and true repentance toward God, are never found asunder (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 2:87).
The Scriptures instruct the person who has repented and believed in Jesus Christ to confess that faith in water baptism. John’s baptism was a unique rite that pointed people ahead to the promised Messiah. It pictured God’s washing or purification from sins, but it was not complete apart from what Messiah would do in offering Himself as the Lamb of God, the perfect sin-bearer. That is why, when Paul later found some disciples of John in Ephesus, who did not know about Jesus Christ, when they believed he baptized them in the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 19:1-6).
For those who have believed in Christ, baptism is a public confession that symbolizes what Jesus Christ has done spiritually for the one who has believed. He has washed us from all of our sins and He has identified us totally with His death, burial, and resurrection to new life. Since the word “baptism” means dipping, and since going completely under the water best pictures what baptism means, immersion is the best mode of baptism. If you look up every occurrence of “baptism” in the New Testament, you will find that it always has reference to believers, and never to infants who cannot yet believe. If you have believed in Christ and know that He has forgiven your sins by His grace, you should be baptized in obedience to His command (Matt. 28:19).
In the early 18th century, England was infected with a plague of materialism. The gap between the rich and poor was widening, but moral degeneracy marked every level of society. The Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, led an openly immoral life and often made fun of virtue. Moral laxity pervaded the nation. Drunkenness, gambling, and cruel amusements were an obsession. Crime was rampant, and criminal law was unfair and barbarous, making criminals only more desperate. The Church of England had, for the most part, ceased to be a vital force. Many ridiculed and railed at the Christian faith without reserve (these conditions summarized from A. Skevington Wood, The Inextinguishable Blaze [Eerdmans], pp. 9-16).
God broke into this dismal and seemingly hopeless situation by saving a young man, George Whitefield, who had been raised in his mother’s inn and tavern. His friends, John and Charles Wesley, also were saved out of their legalistic religion to a living faith in the Redeemer. Through these men, the good news of God’s salvation spread to that decadent society and saved it from the brink of anarchy and revolution. In his biography of Whitefield, Arnold Dallimore observes (George Whitefield [Cornerstone Books], 1:25),
We shall need to remember that it was among a people broken by gin that Whitefield and the Wesleys went about in the nobility of their ministries and that there was triumphant meaning to Charles Wesley’s lines on the deliverance effected by the Gospel:
Hear Him, ye deaf! His praise ye dumb,
Your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Savior come,
And leap ye lame for joy!
He breaks the power of cancelled sin,
He sets the prisoner free!
His blood can make the foulest clean,
His blood availed for me!
That same liberating, powerful message is what we need for our dismal, spiritually dark times. Let’s believe it, live it, proclaim it, and pray that God would break through in our day with His powerful Word of salvation!
Copyright 1998, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation