Several years pass between the end of chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3. Jesus was 12 in chapter 3. We know John is less than a year older than Jesus. John now begins his ministry, leading us to assume he is a grown man, maybe 30 years old.
Luke says John began his ministry in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius. Tiberius reigned beginning in 14 A.D., so these events occurred approximately in 29 A.D.
Again we see Luke giving detailed historical information. He told us Pilate was the governor of Judea, Herod the tetrarch of Galilee and the high priest hood was shared by Annas and Caiaphas. (2) Pilate was governor of Judea from 26 to 36 A.D.
Annas was high priest from 6 to 15 A.D. The Romans deposed him, interfering in Jewish religious matters. He was still alive and influential at this time, however, and was referred to by the title at times. In America, we will address a former president as “Mr. President” in similar fashion. Caiaphas was the actual high priest at the time of John the Baptist, serving from 18-36 A.D.
(Below is a famous bronze of John by Rodin)
In this year, the word of God came to John in the wilderness. This means John acted as a prophet. It had been approximately 460 years since God had sent a prophet to speak to Israel. This increased the anticipation in Israel that something special was happening.
John had been in the wilderness, but now began to travel up and down the Jordan River preaching. (3) He preached a message of baptism for repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
This was not a baptism of profession of one’s faith in Jesus as savior. It is an act of getting ready for the appearance of Christ (Messiah), getting ready to receive him. They needed to repent. John’s baptism was a sign they had repented.
One way we know this is Paul’s encounter with the Ephesian disciples in Acts 19:1-6. He asked them if they received the Holy Spirit when they believed. They said they had not, and did not know about the Holy Spirit. They told Paul they had been baptized with John’s baptism. Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.”
These disciples had repented of their sins and believed Christ was coming. When Paul explained to them that Christ had arrived, they believed and received him as savior. They received the Holy Spirit. Paul baptized them in the name of Jesus.
Luke shows us that John’s preaching is a fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3-5 and quotes it. (4) John’s role was to tell people to prepare the way of the Lord. He is the voice crying in the wilderness. The Jews should repent of their sins and remove all obstacles to the coming of the Lord in salvation. They would “make his paths straight” and see the “salvation of the Lord”. (3:4-6)
There is a kingdom aspect to this prophesy and its fulfillment. When a king intended to visit a place in those days, he sent a herald to the place in advance to tell of his coming The citizens would then build a nice, smooth road for him to travel on. They "made his paths straight". Isaiah's prophesy envisions an even grander project: valleys are filled, mountains and hills are made low, the crooked road made straight and the rough places made smooth." It is a project worth of the king of kings.
And the angel Gabriel told John’s father he would “make ready for the Lord a people prepared”. (1:17)
When John asked the question “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”, he is referring back to God’s threat of destruction in Malachi. John followed Malachi’s warning that failure to repent will bring destruction. That is what he meant by the axe being laid at the roots of the trees.
John also anticipated their counter argument. They would say they were descendants of Abraham and so they were already members of the kingdom of God. But John told them their racial heritage will not save them. God could make all the descendants of Abraham he wants. Similarly, you are not in Christ’s kingdom today because your parents were Christians. You must personally receive Jesus as Savior and Lord to obtain eternal life.
After rebutting the argument, he returned to the threat of judgment. He said the axe was already laid at the root of the trees. This is a metaphor that means the destruction of Israel is imminent if they do not repent. This destruction actually happened 40 years later when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the temple.
John also used the metaphor of fire for judgment, saying every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (9) Jesus would later use a similar metaphor speaking of a vine and branches.
When the people asked what should they do, they were asking what are the fruits of repentance we should bear? And John gave them a list.
First, the “haves” were to share with the “have nots”. He spoke of clothes (tunics) and food. (11) Those who had more than the essentials should share with those who did not have the essentials.
Second, he addressed the tax collectors. He told them not to collect more than they were authorized to take. (13) Tax collectors often got rich by collecting more than the Romans levied and keeping the overage. That is why Zachaeus pledged to return money he had wrongful taken after he became a follower of Jesus. (Luke 19)
Third, he told soldiers not to extort money from people with threats. Instead they were to be content with the wages they were paid. (14)
John’s authoritative preaching made people wonder if he was the Christ. John denied it. In fact, he said he was unworthy even to untie the straps of Messiah’s sandals. (16)
He pointed out the differences between himself and Christ. He said Christ was mightier than he, and, while John baptized with water, Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. (16)
Christ would, and will, baptize all who believe in him with the Holy Spirit. Each believer would have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them.
But those who reject Christ face judgment. Baptizing with fire is a symbol of consuming fire. John emphasized Christ’s power to judge, saying Christ had the winnowing fork in his hand. This is the instrument used to separate wheat from chaff.
The wheat is a symbol of those who believed in Jesus and followed him. The wheat is gathered into the barn, a symbol of receiving eternal life. The chaff represents those who do not follow Christ. They are burned with unquenchable fire. In other words, hell is their final destination.
Israel as a nation faced judgment at the hands of the Romans because they as a nation would not repent. This is the ultimate curse of the covenant. God said, ultimately, if Israel does not repent and turn to him, He would destroy them. Individuals faced the fires of hell because they would not repent and follow Christ.
John’s preaching brought many to repentance. But it also led him to trouble with Herod. John condemned the action of Herod in marrying his brother’s wife Hernias. So, Herod put him in jail. (18) Preaching the truth can get you into trouble.