The Call of John

Luke 3:1 – 6

Can you imagine somebody living a whole life and not being missed when they died? Jimmy Stewart’s classic movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life” demonstrates, Hollywood-style, that every life counts, no matter how insignificant it may seem. Even lowly, humble George Bailey, who thought so little of himself that he was willing to jump off a bridge, was given a glimpse of what Beford Falls would have been like had he never been born. George Bailey learned that every life makes a difference to somebody.

In the Bible, it’s hard to think of a more humble man than John the Baptist. Here was a workman-like prophet, who lived by himself out on the fringes of town. But God used his voice like a trumpet, filling him with His Spirit, making John the Baptist the last, most powerful voice of God in the Old Testament era. Yes, even though we read about him the New Testament, he was really the last Old Testament prophet.

Luke, Paul’s good friend and loyal physician, was also a historian and he gives us some fascinating glimpses into the life of John the Baptist.

1. Historical setting, verse 1

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…

Luke was a historian and like all historians he paid attention to details, names, and places. Here in verse 1, we are give six characters that tell us precisely when the forthcoming events took place. Caesar Augustus was emperor when our Lord was born, but here we are told that John the Baptist began his ministry when Tiberius Caesar was on the throne. Actually, Tiberius reigned for a time with Augustus, as a sort of joint ruler of the Empire. We can turn to secular history that gives us some details: Tiberius Caesar was a brilliant but violent ruler. He had grandiose visions of a world dictatorship and nobody could stand in his way.

For the first time, we are introduced to a man named Pontius Pilate. He was a Roman Procurator, and held this position from 26 – 36. He won’t be mentioned again until the trial of Jesus.

Philip was the best of the Herod family. His rule extended from 4 BC – 34 AD.

The Herod mentioned in this verse Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great and brother of Archelaus. He ruled over Galilee and Perea from 4 BC – 39 AD.   Why is all this important?  It’s because we are dealing with a real person, not a mythic character made up in somebody’s fertile imagination.  With pinpoint accuracy, Luke tells us exactly when a man named John the Baptist was doing his work.

2. When his call came, verse 2

…during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

In truth, there was really only one high priest at a time. So why are two men listed here? Annas was the legitimate high priest. He was kicked out of office some 15 years earlier by Pontius Pilat’s predecessor, Valarius Gratus. However, Annas was regarded by most Jews at the true high priest. During this period of time, no less than four other men held this office, including Caiaphas, the son-in-law of Annas.

Nobody could say that Roman history as it relates to the Jews makes any sense! And it was into this dysfunctional world that John the Baptist, and later Jesus, was born.

God’s call came to John the Baptist while he was in the wilderness. Really, he was living out in the Palestinian desert, all by himself. We wonder why he was there. Was he some kind of social misfit? John’s father himself was a priest and his mother was a devoted servant of God. It’s not unlikely that John was out in the desert seeking God’s will for himself. Normally, as the son of a priest, John would have followed in his father’s footsteps. But instead, he basically renounced the priesthood and went out by himself to discover what God had for him to do.

Sometimes, in order to hear God’s voice, we have to get away from the busyness of life. God, the most powerful voice in the universe, can be easily drowned out by other voices in our minds.

There is an old hymn by Longstaff that gives us an idea what it takes to hear from God:

Take time to be holy, the world rushes on;
Spend much time in secret, with Jesus alone.
By looking to Jesus, like Him thou shalt be;
Thy friends in thy conduct His likeness shall see.

Do you want to hear from God? Show Him you’re serious by getting away from all the distractions of your life.

As to how the call came, almost nothing is said. All our precise historian said was, “the word of God came to John.” We’re not told how the Word came, only that it did. What we know is that John was filled with the Holy Spirit from birth, so that probably made his heart ready to hear what God was saying to him. The Holy Spirit is good at making the mind of God known to those whom He indwells! But, again, John had to get by himself to hear that quiet Voice speaking.

3. The effect the call had, verse 3

He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Clearly, John the Baptist was not disobedient to God’s Word! It propelled him to “get to work!” When God’s Word burns in your heart, you will find a way to fulfill God’s will for you!

John, we are told, preached “the baptism of repentance.” He was the last Old Testament prophet, and his message an old one: repent! Or, as we might say today, “Get right with God!”

John’s mission was not to save, but to get the people to see their need of salvation. He was, in fact, preparing the way for the One who would save to come. Our mission isn’t too far removed from John’s. Our job is to preach repentance; to point the sinner to Christ as the only One who can forgive sins and set a life right.

4. The nature of his message

As John preached, several things happened.

a. He fulfilled prophecy, verse 4a.

As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet…

It is clear that John the Baptist recognized, believed, and confessed that this Scripture (Isaiah 40:3 – 6) was being fulfilled right before everybody’s eyes.

It’s an interesting and curious fact that Isaiah 40:3 was a favorite verse of the Qumran community. Most Christians are familiar with this group due to their association with the famous Dead Sea scrolls. They used the Isaiah passage to justify their separated lifestyle in the desert, like John the Baptist’s. These people believed, also like John, that they were preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah, except in their case, it was by their complete devotion to reading and studying the Law.

John the Baptist, though, was able to put two-and-two together to realize that he was living in an extraordinary time and that he was, in some way, a part of something much, much bigger than he. Only a person who is reading and studying the Word will know where they fit into God’s great plan. But John the Baptist was not some extraordinary fellow. He was a devoted, consecrated believer, and every devoted, consecrated believer plays a part in the will of God for this world.

b. He abandoned self, verse 4b.

A voice of one calling in the wilderness…

Here is the beginning of the Isaiah quote. Note what John said: he was the one in the wilderness calling out. As far as was possible, John was the Word’s voice for a time. But the really interesting thing is that John the Baptist was God’s voice IN THE WILDERNESS, not in a comfortable television studio or mega church or some other posh surrounding. John was given the extreme privilege of speaking for God, but his life stayed the same. The message that came through the prophet Isaiah over 700 years earlier was now made alive in John by the power of of the Holy Spirit.

John was the Word made voice, Jesus was the Word made flesh, yet both men paid the price for their obedience to the call of God. The one who would live for and speak for God must realize that he, the messenger is nothing; the Word is everything.

Something else that is very telling is the statement about John’s voice: he was the one “crying in the wilderness.” John did not sing; he cried. John the Baptist cried like one in pain as he preached God’s Word of repentance. God’s Word has that effect sometimes. It’s true that sometimes the Word brings peace or joy or gladness; other times it brings agony. We think of Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet,” who was called that because for four decades he preached a message that brought him, not his people, to tears.

c. He glorified Christ, verse 4c.

Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.

John was not concerned about his way, but intensely concerned with Christ’s way! In all his preaching, John the Baptist would honor Christ, as the pre-eminent Messiah. It is the Lord’s way. These are His paths. It all belongs to Christ. John’s work was merely preparatory. It would fade away when the Lord would come just like the morning mists dissipate when the sun rises. Jesus was always on John’s horizon.

Jesus was the only One who would fill. Note the words of verse 5: Every valley shall be filled…” John the Baptist knew that when the Lord would come, His presence would fill even the valleys. How? It is in the valleys that the hungry are fed and the depressed and discouraged lifted up. No matter how deep and wide the chasm our need may be, only Jesus is able to reach down and lift up.

Jesus would be the One who would humble. Once again, the words of verse 5: “…every mountain and hill made low.” God has a way of humbling a man! We think about how He humbled Saul on the road to Damascus. God brings down so that He might raise up.

Jesus is the One who makes things right: The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.” We love this aspect of Jesus’ work. Only Jesus is able to take a messed up life and straighten it out. Only Jesus can take your mistakes and make them right. Only Jesus can bring justice out injustice.

John the Baptist was not really all that unique. In fact, the separated life he lived and the testimony he gave should serve as an example for Christians to follow.

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