DIG: How long is the time gap between appearances of John the Baptist here and in Luke 1:80? What do you suppose Yochanan was doing in those intervening years? Why? Why does Luke list all the political and religious figures in these verses?
REFLECT: When was your beginning with Yeshua? This is your testimony. You should be able to explain to others how you came to Christ. This should only take a couple of minutes. You always need to be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have (First Peter 3:15a).
The people of Isra’el were well aware that for four hundred years the voice of prophecy had been silent. They were waiting for some authentic word from God, and ADONAI was ready to break the silence as He sent the last of the prophets to the Israelites. And when John spoke, they heard His voice. In every walk of life the expert is recognizable. We immediately know when a speaker really knows his subject. John had come from the LORD and to hear him was to know it.217
There are some great opening lines in literature. The one most often quoted is Charles Dickens’ introduction to A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times.” Another is the first line of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael.” In contemporary literature, many call attention to Ernest Hemingway’s genius for piquing his reader’s interest and prefiguring the story to come when he begins The Old Man and the Sea with the simple sentence, “He was an old man who fished alone.” But nothing can match the inspired author of Scripture. In one short and profound sentence, Mark announces his theme and gives a general outline of the whole Gospel story: The beginning of the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God (Mark 1:1).218 John’s ministry lasted about one year. All four Gospels and several summaries in Acts (Acts 1:21-22, 10:37, 13:27, 19:4), identify the appearance of John with the beginning of the Good News.
The beginning (Mark 1:1a): This is not the beginning of either John or Jesus. It is the beginning of the Good News when Yeshua the Messiah came to this earth and died upon a cross for the sins of the world and rose again after three days. That, my friend, is the Good News. There are three beginnings recorded in the Bible. They are:
1. In the beginning was the Word (John 1:1). This goes back to eternity past, a beginning before all time. Here the human mind can only fumble around in the dark. We must put our peg somewhere in the past in order to take off. If I see an airplane in the air, I assume there is an airport somewhere. I may not know where it is, but I know the plane took off from somewhere. So when we look around the universe, we know that it took off from somewhere, and that somewhere is God. But we don’t know anything about that beginning. God comes out of eternity past to meet us. We just have to put down our peg at the point where He met us, back as far as I can think, and realize He was there before that.
2. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth (Genesis 1:1). This is where we move out of eternity into time. Although many people have attempted to date this universe, no one knows exactly how old it is. It is probably around six thousand years old, but some secular authors try to find a way to accommodate dinosaur years and account for billions of years in the creation story. We know so little, but when we come into His presence and begin to know fully even as we are known, then we will realize how we see only a reflection as in a mirror (First Corinthians 13:12). I am sure we shall be amazed at how little we really knew in this life. God is great and always right on time.219
3. The beginning of the Good News . . . (Mark 1:1), is the same as that which was from the beginning . . . (1 John 1:1). This is dated. It goes back to when Jesus Christ at the exact moment He took upon Himself human flesh. The good newsin Greek is euaggelion, or a message of good news. This word was originally used for good news of any kind. For example, the proclamation of the accession of a new Roman emperor was entitled good news. But the evangelists changed the word from its secular usage, and spoke of the message of salvation as the Good News.220 Thus, Yeshua Messiah is the Good News.
In the far northeast part of the Land, occupying at least in part the ancient possession of Manasseh, were the provinces belonging to Philip the tetrarch. 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 - during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert (Luke 3:1-2).
Luke, the historian, was careful to identify the time that John the Baptist began his prophetic ministry by tying the dates to secular history. The times were ripe. Rome, which held absolute control over the whole known world, had reached her highest pinnacle of development under Augustus and was on the decline. Two philosophies, Epicureanism and Stoicism, contended for the supremacy; but the former led to sensuality, the latter to pride, and both to despair. In the end atheism prevailed largely among the philosophers. All religions of all the conquered peoples were tolerated in Rome, but none satisfied the spiritual void in their lives. Slavery was widespread, and indescribable cruelty was practiced against them. The sacredness of marriage had disappeared and only scandals remained. Worship of the emperors led to promiscuous deification accompanied with despicable lusts. Might was substituted in the place of right, and justice could not be found. The degenerated tastes of the people ran to unlawful public amusements, in which the emperor would butcher thousands in the arena to make the citizens of Rome content. Charity disappeared and honest manual labor was looked on with contempt. The philosophies of Rome offered no hope but only led to deeper immorality.
Not only was the Roman world in desperate need of ADONAI’s message, but the nation of Isra'el also needed His Good News. The conditions in the provinces were somewhat more favorable, but it was the policy of Rome to absorb all subject nationalities. But the Jews continued to worship one God and retain their ethnic identity. After the Babylonian Captivity, they were no longer tempted to worship foreign gods. But Rome still controlled them. The procurators in Judea had changed the high priest four times, although it was supposed to be an office of life tenure; until they found and appointed Caiaphas, who was willing to be a puppet to the Roman tyranny. Violence, robbery, insults, venality, murders without trial, and cruelty characterized Roman rule.
The religious conditions in Palestine had deterioratedto an alarming degree. There was a lot of phony worship - but little faith. The Pharisees emphasized separateness but not true holiness. Believing that they were guaranteed a place in paradise because they were the children of Abraham, they lost sight of the fact that the one who sins is the one who will die spiritually (Ezekiel 18:20). The scribes professed great devotion to the Scriptures, but emphasized traditionalism and sought to promote themselves. They multiplied regulations for every detail of life, until they became a burden too heavy to be borne. By the time of Christ they had about fifteen hundred oral laws for every one of the six hundred and thirteen commandments in the Torah of Moshe. The Oral Law (see Ei – The Oral Law) was elevated to the point of being superior to the Torah of ADONAI, with the result that the Torah was eventually marginalized.
The Sadducees ridiculed Pharisaic separateness and air of superiority, but were themselves indifferent and did not believe in life after death. Thus, they grabbed everything they could in this life. They praised morality but themselves preferred lives of comfort and self-indulgence. They were favored by the Roman authorities and in turn submitted to their tyranny without much of a protest (see Ja – Whose Wife Will She Be at the Resurrection?).221
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar was in AD 26 (Luke 3:1a). It had been twenty or thirty years since John had gone into the desert, or the wilderness. Harshness characterized the reign of Tiberius in Palestine, and in Rome the Jews suffered severe persecution. It seems likely that Luke calculated these years from the death of Augustus Caesar, the fifteenth year probably would be AD 28, plus or minus a year. The reference of the other rulers is not especially helpful in obtaining a specific date when John began his ministry because there were several years where their rules overlapped. But Luke didn’t mention their names to get an exact date; he did so to relate a decisive event in salvation history to the context of world history.
As John preached on the banks of the Jordan River and Jesus was about to reveal His true identity, Pontius Pilate stepped ashore in the seaside fortress town of Caesarea to be governor of Judea from AD 26 to AD 36 (Luke 3:1b). It was a miserable appointment, for Judea was known to be a difficult place to govern. And he was no friend of the Jews. One of his first official acts was to order Roman troops in Jerusalem to decorate standards (a statue of an eagle situated atop a metal post), with an emblem bearing a likeness of Tiberius Caesar attached just below the eagle. To the Jews this was an idol forbidden by the Torah. When they rose up in protest Pilate feigned execution thinking they would back down. But the Jews bent down and stuck out their necks, making it clear that they were prepared to die for their beliefs. For the first time Pilate witnessed with his own eyes the determination of the Jewish faith. He ordered his soldiers to stand down and the standards were removed.
Pontius Pilate merely formulated a new strategy for dealing with the Jews. He formed an uneasy bond with Caiaphas, a Sadducee, the acting high priest for his father-in-law Annas. He had complete power over religious life in Jerusalem, including the enforcement of Jewish law. Of course, while Caiaphas could pass sentence, it was Pilate who decided if it should be carried out. Pilate was a Roman. Caiaphas was a Jew. They worshiped different gods, ate different foods, had different hopes for their people’s future, and spoke different languages. Pilate supposedly served a divine emperor, while Caiaphas supposedly served God. But they shared a command of the Greek language and a belief that they were entitled to do anything in order to stay in power.222
Herod Antipas was tetrarch of Galilee (see Fl – John the Baptist is Beheaded)and Perea, who ruled from 4 BC to AD 39 (Luke 3:1c, also see 3:19, 8:3, 9:7 and 9, 13:31, 23:7-12; Acts 4:27, 12:1-23, 13:1, 23:25): He was the son of Herod the Great, or as many called him - Herod the Paranoid (see Av – The Visit of the Magi).
Herod’s step-brother Philip was tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis (Luke 3:1d): He ruled east of the Jordan from 4 BC to AD 34. Philip was also a son of Herod the Great.
And Lysanias, by the testimony of Luke and confirmed by modern excavation, was tetrarch of Abilene (Luke 3:1e): It is uncertain why the Ruach HaKodesh inspired Luke to mention Lysanias because little is known about him. Some have speculated that it may have been because Luke supposedly came from Syria, and Abilene bordered Syria.
John’s ministry also began during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas (Luke 3:2a): Annas was deposed by the Romans in AD 14 and replaced by his son-in-law Caiaphas, but the Jews continued to regard Annas as the rightful high priest because they viewed the high-priesthood as an office for life (John 18:13). The plural “high priests” is found throughout the Gospels, and Annas is called the high priest in Acts 4:6 and John 18:19.
The word of God came to John son of Zechariah (Luke 3:2b): The word of God here is the rhema, or spoken word, not logos, or the written Word. Therefore, John heard an audible voice from heaven. It was then, that he began his ministry for which he was born. A similar statement is found at the introduction to Haggai’s prophecy (Haggai 1:1), Zechariah’s prophecy (Zechariah 1:1), and Malachi’s prophecy (Malachi 1:1). This phrase was the formula for a prophetic message from the LORD to be delivered to the nation of Isra'el. As a result, John stood in the same relationship to Isra’el that the three great prophets after the Babylonian captivity occupied. He was ADONAI’s messenger with ADONAI’s message to ADONAI’s people.
In the wilderness (Luke 3:2c): Instead of serving in the Temple as his father Zechariah had done (see Ak – The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold), or appearing in the city Jerusalem as had the postexilic prophets, John went into the wilderness and renounced his priesthood. His very life-style suggested that he was outside the established religious order of his day. He did not want to serve in a corrupt system, and so he became a prophet.
John the Baptist is one of the most striking characters that appear in the Bible. He reminded the people of Elijah because both were in the wilderness during their years of preparation. He also reminded the people of the coming Messiah. John was a paradoxical person and truly an unusual man. Luke has told us of his miraculous birth (see Ao – The Birth of John the Baptist). His entire childhood is passed over, and the next major development in his life was the beginning of his ministry. He was a priest, a prophet and a preacher. He was a priest by birth because he was the son of Zechariah, but he was called by ADONAI to be a prophet and a preacher. Thus, the scene is set, and John lived a life of seclusion in the wilderness until his ministry began (Luke 1:80).