Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Luke 3.1-6
2nd Sunday in Advent - Year C

Other texts:

In all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary, the 2nd and 3rd Sundays in Advent center on John the Baptist. Perhaps if we want to properly prepare for the coming of Jesus, rather than looking in the manger, or decorating trees and houses, or buying and wrapping presents, we need to listen to John. While only two gospels mention the nativity, all four talk about John who prepares the way for the coming of Jesus. Could John's preparatory preaching be more important than Jesus' birth? It is for some gospel writers.

Only in Year C do we have a continuous reading for these two "John the 'B' Sundays." Next week's lesson is Luke 3:7-18.


Luke's account of John the Baptist's ministry comes from a variety of sources.

[Luke omits Mark's description of John's food & clothing (Mk 1:5-6)]

I will use the first part of the above breakdown as an outline for a more detailed look at this week's text.


The chronological data of these verses reflects the conventions of Greco-Roman historiography as well as a pattern found in some Jewish prophetic books (Jer 1:1-3; Ezek 1:1-3; Hos 1:1; Isa 1:1). Luke seeks to place his "orderly account" (Lk 1:1) within the context of "world" history. In addition, this writing, addressed to "Most Excellent Theophilus" (Lk 1:3), places the events within the context of the rulers and times (and some historiographic forms) that Theophilus would know. It is likely that he was some type of Roman official.

Even though six different people are named, that doesn't allow us to pinpoint the exact date that John began his ministry. First of all, our standard time reckoning of "year of the Lord" (A.D.) did not begin until 533 AD. Our year of 365+ days and 12 months was not standard in the first century. There were at least four different calendars back then. Each reckoned the years differently. We can't be sure how long "15 years" would have been.

Secondly, we are not sure when Tiberius began his reign or when Luke started counting the years. There were two or three years when Tiberius was co-regency with Augustus starting in 11 or 12 AD. Augustus died in 14 AD. Did the counting start in 11 or 12 or 14? Our best guess is that Luke refers to a time around 28 AD.

The date ranges of the other rulers (from Culpepper, Luke New Interpreter's Bible):

Note that Luke includes both civil and religious leaders in his list. There is also a sense of narrowing the focus: starting with the ruler of the Roman Empire -- nearly the whole world -- and ending up at the temple in Jerusalem -- where the high priests did their work.

What is the significance of this information? First of all, they indicate that the historical context was important to Luke. Secondly, I think that Luke tries to show to Theophilus (and all Roman rulers) that Jesus and the Christians were not subversive to Rome. The charges that Jesus was putting himself up against Caesar were created by Jesus' enemies (see Lu 23:2; compare to 20:21-25). Thirdly, Luke seeks to speak in a form (language) that Theophilus will understand. He places his Gospel in the form and in the historical context that will make sense to his audience.


Whereas the first verse and a half follow a more Greco-Roman historiography and set the time (although not precisely) of John's ministry; the form in 2b-3a is that of the call of a prophet and it sets the place of John's ministry -- it is in the region around the Jordan.

More importantly is the phrase: "The word of God came to John." As Green states (The Gospel of Luke): "... 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" [p. 160].

Luke adds "son of Zechariah." The designation "son of" is quite common in OT prophetic books: Isaiah 1:1; Jeremiah 1:1; Ezekiel 1:3; Hosea 1:1; Joel 1:1; Jonah 1:1; Zephaniah 1:1; Zechariah 1:1. Luke also uses forms from Jewish literature. It doesn't completely abandon the Jewishness of John, Jesus, and the disciples. This also connects this story with the opening chapter of Luke. What was promised to Zechariah is now being fulfilled.


"a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins"


The basic meaning of the verb baptizo is "to wash," which is how it is translated in Lu 11:38. Usually it also has some ritual or purifying aspects to the washing. This image is used by Luke in Acts 22:16: "Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away (apolouo), calling on his name."

Luke has a very high opinion of baptism. In what is assumed to be a narrator's aside (7:29-30), Luke says:

All the people who heard -- including tax collectors -- having been baptized with the baptism of John proved God right. (dikaioo) But the Pharisees and lawyers not having been baptized by him reject for themselves the purpose of God.

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.

As important as Luke makes John's baptism, he also makes a clear distinction in his Gospel, and even moreso in Acts, between John's baptism and Christian or Holy Spirit baptism (Lu 3:16; Ac 1:5; 11:16; 18:25; 19:3-5).


"Repentance" and "repenting" are important words in Luke/Acts. The verb occurs in these books 14 times (34 total times in the NT); and the noun 11 times (22 times in the NT).

A listing of the 14 times this word occurs in the Gospel of Luke and their assumed sources.

Perhaps for Luke, the foremost characteristic of Christians is repentance. 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)".

What is it about our thinking that needs changing? Simply stated, I think that it is the idea that we can do it by ourselves. We are justified before God by our good lives. We are pretty good people because we obey the commandments. We aren't as bad as those sinners. And, if we find we are coming up short in some of these areas, we might reflect on our misdeeds only to discover ways that we can stop doing the bad things and start doing good things. The problem with this type of repentance is that it doesn't seek outside help. The mind still thinks, "I can do it by myself." It hasn't been changed.

I think that reason that Jesus had so much trouble with the scribes and Pharisees was because they were doing pretty well by themselves. They were living good, moral, obedient lives before God and neighbor. In contrast, the sinners and tax collectors were quite aware that they didn't measure up to God's or society's standards. They knew that they couldn't do it by themselves. They needed help. I've suggested in a number of previous notes that repentance is declaring to self and God, "I can't."

12-Step programs begin with the first step, which is an acknowledgment that I can't do it by myself: "We admitted we were powerless over _______ -- that our lives had become unmanageable."

In working as a part-time chaplain at an alcoholic hospital, it was clear that the more serious they took this first step, the more likely the clients were to follow through the program and find the needed help in the other steps. They knew that can't do by themselves. They know they need their higher power. They know they need the care and support of the AA community. If they continued to think that they had some power over their drinking, recovery and sobriety were very unlikely. It was also generally true that the first step back into their addictions was a failure to keep up with their daily devotions -- (AA has its own devotional book) -- and participation in the "community" -- (going to meetings). How important are devotions and church attendance for staying strong in the Christian faith?


The other side of confessing "I can't" is "God can." God can "remove" (aphiemi) our sinfulness. Every time the word "sin" (hamartia) is used in Luke, the words for "to forgive" or "forgiveness" (aphiemi/aphesis) are also present (1:77; 3:3; 5:20, 21, 23, 24; 7:47, 48, 49; 11:4; 24:47). Twice, when the verb "to (commit) sin" is used (hamartano), the word for "to forgive" (aphiemi) is also present (17:3, 4). The other two instances of the verb are in the parable of the prodigal son (15:18, 21), and although the word "forgiveness" doesn't occur. It is illustrated by the father's actions.

Similar statistics can be found in Acts. These are all the verses containing "sin".

At least for Luke -- and I believe for us -- we cannot talk about sin without the offer of forgiveness. Robert Capon in Hunting the Divine Fox, points out the church's real job.

The church is not in the morals business. The world is in the morals business, quite rightfully; and it has done a fine job of it, all things considered. The history of the world's moral codes is a monument to the labors of many philosophers, and it is a monument of striking unity and beauty. As C.S. Lewis said, anyone who thinks the moral codes of mankind are all different should be locked up in a library and be made to read three days' worth of them. He would be bored silly by the sheer sameness.

What the world cannot get right, however, is the forgiveness business -- and that, of course, is the church's real job. She is in the world to deal with the Sin which the world can't turn off or escape from. She is not in the business of telling the world what's right and wrong so that it can do good and avoid evil. She is in the business of offering, to a world which knows all about that tiresome subject, forgiveness for its chronic unwillingness to take its own advice. But the minute she even hints that morals, and not forgiveness, is the name of her game, she instantly corrupts the Gospel and runs headlong into blatant nonsense.

The church becomes, not Ms. Forgiven Sinner, but Ms. Right. Christianity becomes the good guys in here versus the bad guys out there. Which, of course, is pure tripe. The church is nothing but the world under the sign of baptism. [pp. 132-133]

ISAIAH 40:3-5 (Luke 3:4-6)

Mark and Matthew only quote Isaiah 40:3. Luke adds the other verses -- those about the transformation of the ups and downs, and sideways-ness of life into straight and smooth and level paths. While this image can lead to the idea of reversal. That is, the rich become poor and the poor become rich. It seems more likely that Luke intends a meaning of equality. That is, the rich and poor meet in the middle. I think that part of this equality is Luke's emphasis that in the God's kingdom (and church) human differences don't matter. There will be rich and poor. There will be slaves and free. There will be males and females. There will be young and old. There will be Jews and Gentiles. (Might there also be "straights" and "gays"?) All are invited. We might say, there is a level playing field for all people.

This thought is emphasized in the last line of the quote: "All flesh will see the salvation of God." Luke stresses the universal aspect of God's salvation.


The only other time this particular word for "salvation" is used (soterion) in all of the gospels, is when Simeon sings: "My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel" (2:30-32). [Other NT occurrences of the word: Ac 28:28; Ep 6:17]

What did Simeon see when he declares he has seen God's salvation? He had seen the infant Jesus and there was a change in Simeon's thinking about death.

Later in the gospel a closely related word is used (soteria) when Jesus tells Zacchaeus, "Today salvation has come to this house" (19:9). What had come to his house? Jesus had invited himself over and there was change in Zacchaeus' thinking about wealth. [Other occurrences of this word in Luke/Acts: Lu 1:69, 71, 77; Ac 4:12; 7:25; 13:26, 47; 16:17; 27:34 -- it does not occur in the other Synoptics and once in John (4:22).]

Only Luke and John use "savior" (soter) in their writings: Lu 1:47; 2:11; Jo 4:42.

Neither Matthew or Mark use any of the words related to sot- but Luke does. All of the gospels use the related verb sozo = "to save, heal, deliver." Perhaps Luke's audience was more familiar with sot- terms. Protecting gods were frequently given the title "soter," e.g., Zeus Soter.

At the same that they may have been more familiar with such terms, the word group -- as well as their Hebrew equivalents -- carried the idea of "victory over enemies." "Enemies were outside forces -- an invading army or a disease that had invaded the body. Salvation meant defeating and driving out the army or healing the disease.

Jesus, the Savior, has come, and enemies are still all around us. There are still armies that invade and suppress people. There are still germs that invade bodies. There is still sin in the world and in our lives. The world isn't what it should be. Our lives aren't what we would like them to be. How can we say that God's salvation has come? Nothing seems to have changed. There are still hills and valleys and crooked and rough roads. There are inequalities between people. All are not treated equally. Many people do not see God's salvation.

Often people miss God's salvation because they are looking in the wrong places. They want to see a powerful military leader or a great physician. The savior is a baby in a manger. The salvation is seen in the face of an infant or in an adult who invites himself for supper. Seeing God's salvation means seeing Jesus -- one who doesn't save himself from death on the cross.

We don't live in a perfect world. There are still wars. There are still diseases. There are still rough roads to travel. But we don't look to the world to see God's salvation, we look to Jesus -- Jesus present in Scriptures -- Jesus in the manger -- Jesus on the cross -- Jesus present in the sacraments -- Jesus present in our coming together in his name -- Jesus present in the lives of his followers -- Jesus present and eating with sinners. Do we see Jesus' presence in the person next to us in the pew -- or behind and in front of us?

Perhaps when we begin to see Jesus in each other and in ourselves and treat one another (and ourselves) as we would treat Jesus; more of the world might have a glimpse of God's salvation.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901