Luke Week 2
Adam, John, Jesus: Luke 3:1–4:13
By Mark Abbott
Seattle Pacific University Adjunct Instructor
Read this week’s Scripture: Luke 3:1–4:13
The kickoff of something new is important. People in Seattle celebrate “opening day” of boating season. The first home baseball game of a new season is a big deal. A new president’s first weeks in office are watched by the nation and the world. The launching of a new administration for an organizational or institutional leader sets the tone for what will follow.
After setting the stage with the stunning birth announcements of Chapters 1 and 2, Luke begins to describe the launch of Jesus’ ministry. We will save the climactic launching of Jesus’ public ministry in Luke 4:16–21 for the next Lectio, but, before that key transition, Luke gives us more of the backstory preparatory to this public launching of Jesus’ ministry. In this week’s passage, Luke takes us on a three-part journey:
- First to John the Baptizer’s ministry
- Next to Jesus’ ancestry
- Finally to the amazing scene in the wilderness, where Jesus is tested
For the sake of chronology and sequence, we’ll look first at the lengthy list of names that concludes Luke 3.
Luke 3:23–38: The Family Tree Goes Back to Adam!
“Ready to discover your family story?” asks the home page of ancestry.com. This website claims to be “the world’s largest online family history resource.” But few modern folks are into ancestry the way the ancient Jewish people were. They knew who they were by knowing where they came from.
The book of I Chronicles begins with 12 long chapters that are mostly lists of names. Luke’s genealogy of Jesus includes 77 names. “How boring!” some might exclaim. But, as Luke moves toward the launching of Jesus’ ministry, he knows how important it is for his readers to understand where Jesus came from. For ancient peoples, genealogy was not just about curiosity, but about identity.
Matthew’s gospel also tends to genealogical issues (Matthew 1:1–17). Here are some differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies:
- While Matthew puts his genealogy at the very beginning of his gospel, before the birth stories, Luke places the genealogy in a passage that transitions into the launching of Jesus’ ministry.
- While Matthew traces Jesus’ ancestry to Abraham, Luke takes us back to Adam, who was, he observes, “son of God” (Luke 3:38).
- While Matthew works forward in history from Abraham, Luke works backward from Jesus, who this gospel writer uniquely observes “was about thirty years old when he began his work” (3:23).
- While Matthew’s agenda seems to be to give us the genealogy of Joseph, legal father of Jesus, Luke’s agenda is apparently to give us the ancestry through Mary, which was the actual, human lineage of Jesus, and Luke has more generations between Abraham and Jesus than Matthew has. Obviously, ancestries then and now may be traced by more than one route. Furthermore, in ancient times, genealogies were framed for a particular purpose and agenda.
The most important observation on genealogy is that Luke, a non-Jew, traces Jesus’ ancestry not just to David, the great Jewish king, and not just to Abraham, father of the Jewish people, but to Adam, ancestor of us all. Jesus belongs not only to a special nation or nations, or to privileged groups of people, but to all humanity.
Having tended to family tree issues, we move to the beginning of this Lectio reading, where Luke picks up the story of the other special baby announced in Luke 1.
Luke 3:1–22: “The Word of God Came to John!”
Right away we again encounter history. Luke, the serious historian, wants us to know time and setting for the beginning of John’s ministry, which would be preparatory for launching Jesus’ own ministry. The historical data of Luke 3:1–2 not only tells us when “the word of God came to John” (probably about 27 A.D.), but also hints at the context. As N.T. Wright observes, “Behind the list of names and places is a story of oppression and misery that was building up to explosion point.” [Author’s Note 1]
Rome’s emperor, its provincial governor, and the underling local kings noted in Luke’s historical synopsis were all oppressors. Even Annas and Caiaphas, Jewish high priests, exercised poor leadership. God’s people were ready to listen to a new messenger, who, they hoped, would bring good news of deliverance. Maybe it would be good news of a new exodus, like the one God had brought centuries before.
The message of John sounded like that of one of the prophets, whom God’s people had not heard from for four centuries. “The word of God came …” was the traditional introduction of a prophetic call (see, for example, Jeremiah 1:2). Fulfilling prophecy from Isaiah 40, “John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives, and wanted God to forgive their sins” (Luke 3:3, CEB).
Ritual washings were common in this era, both in the synagogue for non-Jewish proselytes and among the desert-dwelling Essene sect of Judaism. Instead of a smiling, “be happy” message, John calls for repentance — a change of heart and life. As with the prophets of bygone eras, John is not one to mince words when calling people back to God (3:7). “Preparing the way of the Lord” requires people not to depend on their Jewish ancestry, but to change the way they were living.
“What then should we do?” is the general response to John’s preaching (3:10–14). John responds not with vague, theoretical discussions of how to live, but with black-and-white behavioral challenges. Those who have resources should share with those who have less. No more of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. When tax collectors and Herod’s soldiers also ask what they should do, the response is in the same vein. No getting rich at the expense of others! No boosting your income by threats and ill treatment of people you’re supposed to be serving! Doesn’t all this have a contemporary sound to it? What John is calling for is not merely external behavior adjustment, but a change of heart leading to a concrete change in lifestyle.
“Is he the Messiah, the Deliverer for whom we’ve been waiting?” people were wondering about John (3:15). The messenger redirected attention from himself to the one who was coming. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:16). The true Messiah would bring judgment on all wrong. But this judgment would lead to the blessing of deliverance. Thus, John’s message, despite its sternness, was a proclamation “of good news to the people” (3:18).
The need for a new way of living was graphically illustrated in the underling king, Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great and ruler at the time of Jesus’ birth. Herod’s adultery and divorce, followed by his imprisoning God’s straight-talking messenger, John, were well known to the people of Galilee (3:19–20).
Luke’s brief picture of Jesus’ baptism (3:21–22) moves the story’s spotlight from John, who is not mentioned in this account of the baptism, to Jesus, whose public ministry will soon be launched. The genealogy (3:23–37) tells who Jesus is in terms of his ancestry. His baptism declares who Jesus is through the descent of the Holy Spirit and the voice of God: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (3:22).
Though Jesus hears this powerful divine declaration of identity, there’s a sense in which any son or daughter of God can hear it too. The Apostle Paul talks about being “in Christ” through faith, which leads to a renewed and right relationship with God. Paul declares, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). In the words of the Charles Wesley hymn “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?,”
No condemnation, now I dread
Jesus, and all in him, is mine.
In a renewed relationship with God through Jesus, we also hear the identity-giving fatherly words that Jesus heard at his baptism: “You are my son/daughter. In you I am well pleased.”
But at this transition the storyline shifts from the family tree of Adam, and from John the messenger, to Jesus, the one to whom John points.
Luke 4:1–13: Jesus Is Tested in the Wilderness
Before Jesus publicly launches his ministry (4:14), we enter into a story of Jesus’ inner preparation for ministry. This is a critical scene for Jesus and for all who would follow Jesus.
Coming from the identity-affirming experience at his baptism, Jesus is not spiritually sagging but is “full of the Holy Spirit” (4:1). Jesus, on what we might call “a spiritual high,” “is led by the Spirit into the wilderness” (4:1). The Spirit of God knows that at this high point of launching his ministry, it is good for Jesus to experience a lengthy, solitary retreat in the wilderness. There, Jesus will face the question of what kind of messiah he will be. And there, Jesus hears the whispering voice of the devil on the desert breeze.
Jesus in the wilderness echoes Israel’s story of wilderness wandering. After coming through the Red Sea waters and hearing God’s choice of them as his own special people, Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness because they failed a testing experience. They failed to move forward into the Land of Promise (Numbers 13–14).
Deuteronomy reflects on this wilderness time, “Remember the long way the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart” (Deuteronomy 8:2; italics added for emphasis). It was only after being tested in those years of wilderness wandering that they were the people God had called them to be. After his baptism and affirmation as God’s special Son, Jesus faces the test of what kind of messiah he will be. Will Jesus be the kind of messiah who will genuinely deliver Israel and the world from the grip of evil and the Evil One?
Luke ends the story of Jesus’ temptations with this statement: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time” (4:13; italics added for emphasis). But who is this “devil,” who shows up early in the story of Jesus, but who also continues to make his presence known?
“Devil” comes from a word meaning “accuser,” or “slanderer.” In Mark’s version of Jesus’ temptations, the devil is called “Satan” (Mark 1:13), meaning “adversary.” The only other place besides Jesus’ temptation where our Lord addresses the devil as “Satan” is when Jesus calls a trusted associate by this name. When Peter tries to dissuade Jesus from his calling to suffer and die, “Jesus rebukes Peter and says, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’” (Mark 8:31–33). Later, Jesus also warns Peter that Satan, the adversary, is going to test him and all the disciples (Luke 22:31).
Contemporary western Christians tend either to be overly preoccupied with this “adversary,” on the one hand, or to try to ignore him, on the other. Neither approach, claims C.S. Lewis, does justice to the reality of this adversary of God and God’s people. [Author’s Note 2] Realism demands recognition of a spiritual adversary of God, who works sometimes through a serpent, sometimes through an enticing voice in the wilderness, and sometimes even through a trusted disciple like Peter (Mark 8:31).
The third chapter of the Bible introduces us to this adversary of God, pictured there as a serpent, who questions and challenges God’s instructions to Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:1–7). Despite being created in God’s image and being given a commission to partner with God to care for the created world, Adam and Eve fall for the adversary’s lie. They fail the test. But now Luke tells of another “Adam,” who is also tested by the adversary. And Jesus does not fail the test.
Notice the ways Jesus is tested:
- After a 40-day fast, Jesus is “starving” (4:2, CEB). The devil entices him to use his powers merely to satisfy his own physical desires. Ancient people attributed such powers to magicians, who claimed to be able to transform stones into bread. “Prove who you are by doing a magician’s trick!” But Jesus quotes Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone” (Deuteronomy 8:3).
- Then, across his mind’s eye, the devil shows Jesus the world’s kingdoms. “I’ll give you everything if you will worship me. Just think! You wouldn’t have to go through all that hard stuff of the cross to become the Messiah people are expecting!” But Jesus quotes the Deuteronomy 6:13 prohibition of idolatry — the worship of someone or something besides God. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
- Finally the devil says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here” (4:9) — that is, from the pinnacle of the temple, again envisioned for Jesus by the adversary. Jesus put this adversary’s testing to an end with one more quote from Moses’ desert sermon, “Don’t test the Lord your God” (4:12; Deuteronomy 6:16).
As the Epistle to the Hebrews affirms, Jesus is “one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus understands what it’s like to take testing to its ultimate intensity, that is, not to yield to it. Jesus is not Superman, who looks like an ordinary human being but is not. Jesus feels the pull to use his powers merely as a magician, to take a shortcut to glory, and to show off in a spectacular display. But Jesus comes through the test, ready in spirit to launch his public ministry. The nature of our tests and temptations are different from those Jesus encountered — but we are tested. That is part of being human. In this life there’s no freedom from temptation, not for Jesus, and not for us.
But how do we know about this amazing scene? We presume there were no eyewitnesses present at Jesus’ time of testing. Jesus is our source for this story, which is recorded in three of the four gospels. Jesus’ testing was important for him. And, Jesus must have believed, it is important for us to know about it.
Questions for Further Reflection
- How do you respond to John the Baptizer’s black-and-white challenges for behavioral change that require sharing one’s resources with those who have less than we do?
- How have you heard the identity-giving voice of the Father, affirming that you are his beloved and that he is pleased with you?
- What kinds of tests are you going through now? Are some from obviously evil sources? Are some from respectable, seemingly good sources? How are you responding to these tests?
- How does it encourage you to remember that Jesus went through testing as we do, and that his testing was not just a one-time occurrence, but ongoing?
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