Second Sunday in Advent, Year C, Translation Notes and Commentary

Luke 3:1-6

The Proclamation of John the Baptist
(Mt 3.1—12; Mk 1.1—8; Jn 1.19—28)

1 In the fifteenth year of the reign[a] of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler[b] of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word[c] of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.[d] 3
He[e] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance[f] for the forgiveness[g] of sins,[h] 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,[i]
“The voice of one crying[j] out in the wilderness:[k]
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
      make his paths straight.
5 Every valley[l] shall be filled,
      and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,[m]
      and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh[n] shall see the salvation of God.’”[o]

The second Sunday of Advent traditionally honors John the Baptist and this is the quintessential passage for John. Like the Malachi and Isaiah 40 passages which it quotes (incorrectly, actually), it has a life and integrity of its own, that is sometimes lost in the seasonal fru fru about it.
Vss. 1-4 is sometimes known as Luke’s “Second Prologue,” because the Gospel proper begins here. There are several reasons for calling it that. First, the “First Prologue” (Luke 1:1-2) is a complete stand-alone unit, a mini-musical complete with songs and pageantry, and characters that never show up again. It was probably added later after the Gospel was finished.[p] Second, note that here, in chapter 3, John is introduced to readers as Zechariah’s son (v.2b) as though they had never heard of him before, and had not just read of his birth, in chapter 2. Third, notice too that Luke frequently refers to this, and not the earlier stories, as the true arche, “beginning” of his gospel (See Acts 1:22, “‘So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.’” And Acts 10:37, “That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced....” [I added the italics in case no one could tell]). Finally, the second prologue is probably the true beginning because it begins where Mark begins: with John the Baptist.
The purpose of the First Prologue, with all the birth stories, could be described as “Luke’s summation of the OT, waiting for the fulfillment of the messianic promises.[q] The purpose of the second prologue is to “present John as the one called by God to prepare for the inauguration of the period of salvation.”[r]
There are three reasons (that I know of at least) for Luke beginning his [second] prologue the way he does. First, he does it to situate the Advent of Jesus in concrete historical time and place. He does it by listing historical political leaders in a formal classical style. (For other prologues that begin like this second prologue, see Jeremiah 1:1, Hosea 1:1 [“The word of the Lord that came to Hosea son of Beeri, in the days of Kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah, and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel.”], and Amos 1:1). Luke has a profound sense of history, and his heilsgeschichte, or “salvation history,” encompasses all people, sacred and profane. Mark subsumed all of history, even the words and deeds of Jesus, under the Gospel kerygma. In Matthew, “Jesus was not presented as a figure in world history, but as it’s conclusion.”[s] But for Luke, this is a story of history itself breaking forth. All of history is taken up into the event of Jesus. He believes that a new age is breaking in in world history. In a sense, Matthew and Mark do also, but for Luke, it breaks in in stages (see the three stages below).
Another goal for Luke was to write in such a way as to smash the sacred and profane abruptly into each other almost for the shock value. Notice how the descriptions go from the most powerful (who in God’s world are weak) to the most weak (who in God’s world have the most power). “In the fifteenth year of...governor of...ruler of...ruler of...during the high priest of...and of...the word of God came (not to them, but) to John, son of Zechariah, in the  wilderness” (Luke 3:1-2). (Take that you pompous despotic wind bags!) The word of God shows up (by design) in the most unlikely passages and places. Placing the lowly John here proclaiming the word of God also shows the reader just who exactly is in charge.
The rest of the world knew of none of this. Josephus’ references to John stress almost totally John’s political background. Herod was afraid that John’s followers would rise up “for it seemed that they might to go any length on his advice.”[t] On the other hand, the gospels seem almost totally interested in his moral teachings as the cause for his imprisonment.
Conzelmann,[u] and others following him divide Luke’s theological/historical understanding into three epochs, or periods.
1.       Promise (the time of the Hebrew scriptures, up to chapter 3 of the gospel).
2.       Jesus (the time of the gospel itself).
3.       Church (Acts).
He further divides the Jesus period (#2) into three parts,
1.       The struggle with Satan (chs. 3:1-4:13 [up through the temptation and just before Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth]),
2.       The “satanless” time (4:14-22:2, “When Satan had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time” [Luke 4:13]).
3.       The final struggle with Satan (Luke 22:2-24:53, “Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot....” [Luke 22:3 ff.]).
Today’s is, of course, from the beginning of the “Jesus period” within the larger gospel, and the beginning of the “conflict with Satan” period within that.

There are three themes, important for the rest of the Gospel, found here.[v]
1.       The word of God (rëma tou theou). Here it is the initial presence of God with John, his prophetic call (prophetes, a “word speaker”). Later it will be the content of the call (Acts 2:14, 5:20). Also in acts, it becomes more cosmic, the Gospel itself, the logos tou theou. There it is the embodiment of the teaching of the church (Acts 6:2, 12:24).
2.       Repentance (metanoias). “Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”) John’s work and words not only prepare the way for Jesus, but for the future work of the church. “John’s action serves as the prototype of the church’s preaching of baptism and its declaration that in Jesus God forgives human sins.”[w] He is portrayed here as what they would later be charged to do: “here, folks, is the model of how to proclaim Jesus. How ya doin’ on that yourself?”
3.       Salvation of God. (soterion). This is the central theme of the Gospel: Salvation for all creation. Note especially the lines of Zechariah in Luke 1:76-77, “And you, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” And Lk 2:29-30 “‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace…for my eyes have seen your salvation.’”
In the context of the gospel, John is portrayed by Luke as the forerunner for Luke’s theology: forgiveness and salvation. In the context of Advent, John tells Christians of the need to be prepared for the re-presenting of the Christ. Prepare the highways, make them serviceable, repair the things that are broken or get in the way of his coming. Tear down the walls.

The Famous Isaiah Misquote Story

Luke has John quote loosely from Isaiah 40:3-5. Mark, his primary source, quotes both Isaiah and Malachi (our first reading), while calling both Isaiah. Luke untangles the quotation by removing Malachi, and then he goes on to use a larger portion of the Isaiah passage. A careful read, however shows that he not only quotes it, but misquotes it in an interesting way. All four Gospels cite the Isaiah passage and all make the same error in the citation. The reason is that they all are quoting from the lxx, translated the Hebrew into Greek incorrectly. The Isaiah passage reads:
      “A voice cries out:
      ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
              make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”
Notice that Luke (and the others) have the voice crying in the wilderness, not crying out about the wilderness. It becomes not a sentence about the wilderness, but a sentence that takes place in the wilderness.
“The Isaiah quotation sets forth one of the key theological themes that runs throughout the Gospel of Luke, what some have called the theology of reversal. Isaiah is prophesying a messianic age which Luke sees as being fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. Isaiah describes the messianic age with images of reversal, valleys lifted up, mountains brought low, the crooked made straight and the rough made smooth. This symbolizes for Luke the leveling of society in the messianic age, the rich and powerful being brought low, while the poor are lifted up.[x]

Isaiah 40:1-5
40 Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Detailed exegetical notes (from Homiletics, Vine’s, Proclamation, Strong’s etc.) on the passage
3:1 “ In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius...”
Tiberius was the stepson of Augustus Caesar, and was disliked by all of Rome because he wasn’t really blood lineage. He only became leader because Augustus was unable to produce a male offspring, so the stepson had to do. There were numerous attempts to overthrow him during his reign.
“when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea...”
He rose to this position from a “middle manager” position in the Roman Government. He came up from the ranks by beating everyone else down. Ruthless. “Knowing that his hold on Judea was tenuous, he made up for his weakness by periodically unleashing a reign of terror through his soldiers on the citizenry.” The rule of Pontius Pilate is also found in the writings of Josephus, J. W. 2.9.2-4 (2.169-77) and Ant.18.3.1 (18.55-59).
“and Herod was ruler of Galilee...”
Not Herod the King, but his son. Equally unsavory character. He was later deposed and beheaded for his attempts to get himself appointed real king. He ruled from 4 B.C.-AD 39, sharing the rule of his father’s realm with his two brothers. One brother, Archelaus (Matt 2:22) was banished in AD 6 and died in AD 18; the other brother, Herod Philip (mentioned next) died in AD 34.
“Ruler,” tetrarch. Originally the title for ‘a ruler of a fourth of the territory’ or ‘one of four rulers.’ In Hellenistic and Roman times, however, it is applied somewhat loosely to petty rulers of dependent states; a tetrarch is lower in status than an ethnarch, who, in turn, is lower than a king. The term occurs seven times in the nt, with three of these occurrences in Luke 3:1. The other four occurrences refer to Herod Antipas (Matt. 14:1; Luke 3:19; 9:7; Acts 13:1). On the other hand, Herod Antipas is called ‘king’ in Mark 6:14, 26, suggesting that some equivalence may have existed between the two titles.[y]
“and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene...”
Not as much known about these two probable brothers of Herod. But we do know that they fought over property of Judea. Fought to keep Israel fractured and divided among themselves. Fought for the spoils of the country. Each had their own demands for power which prevented a united kingdom. A legacy we still experience in the middle east even today.
 “Phillip,” refers to Herod Philip, son of Herod the Great and brother of Herod Antipas. Philip ruled as tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis from 4 B.C.-AD 34. “Lysanias”: It may not be historically accurate to list Lysanias here because Josephus (Ant. XXVII. I) tells of a Lysanias who was King of Abila up to b.c.e. 36 as the one referred to by Luke, but with the wrong date. But recently an inscription has been found on the site of Abilene with mention of “Lysanias the tetrarch” and the stone is dated at about the time to which Luke refers, so it may be correct.[z] But then who knows? (And who cares?)
2 “during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas...”
Luke is noting in passing the division even within the house of God: Caiaphus was Annas’ son-in-law, and supposedly succeeded him in 18 c.e. but the older man never quite gave up the reigns. Like a preacher who retires but never leaves the congregation and still controls things from behind the scenes.
“the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness...”
Note the simplicity of John in contrast to the powerful kings and rulers with whom he is compared.
Zechariah: Note also that no other Gospel mentions Zechariah. If the so-called “first Prologue” had originally been a part of the Gospel, then Luke probably would not have seen the need to re-introduce John as the “son of Zechariah,” something that had just been discussed in great detail in the previous chapter.
Wilderness: “The desert is not only a geographical reference; it also recalls the place of Israel’s formation as God’s covenant people and hence implies a return to God. John’s ministry centered in the Jordan Valley where he preached a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins (cf. Mark 1:4). This baptism differs from proselyte baptism that was for non-Jews, and Qumran baptism that was a repeated act of cleansing. Repentance and forgiveness of sins constitute the gospel for Luke (24:47)”[aa]

Definitions of these key terms (mainly from Strong’s)
“proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”
proclaiming (kerusso), of uncertain affinity; to herald (as a public crier), especially the gospel, preach (-er), proclaim, publish.
Baptism (baptisma), According to Strong’s:
1)    immersion, submersion
1a)    of calamities and afflictions with which one is quite overwhelmed
1b)    of John’s baptism, that purification rite by which men on confessing their sins were bound to spiritual reformation, obtained the pardon of their past sins and became qualified for the benefits of the Messiah’s kingdom soon to be set up. This was valid Christian baptism, as this was the only baptism the apostles received and it is not recorded anywhere that they were ever Rebaptized after Pentecost.
1c)    of Christian baptism; a rite of immersion in water as commanded by Christ, by which one after confessing his sins and professing his faith in Christ, having been born again by the Holy Spirit unto a new life, identifies publicly with the fellowship of Christ and the church.
In Rom. 6:3 Paul states we are “baptized unto death” meaning that we are not only dead to our former ways, but they are buried. To return to them is as unthinkable for a Christian as for one to dig up a dead corpse! In Moslem countries a new believer has little trouble with Moslems until he is publicly baptized. It is then, that the Moslems’ know he means business, and then the persecution starts.[bb]
Forgiveness (aphesis)
1)       release from bondage or imprisonment
2)       forgiveness or pardon, of sins (letting them go as if they had never been committed), remission of the penalty
Repentance (metanoea) a change of mind, as it appears to one who repents, of a purpose he has formed or of something he has done.
According to Vine’s, to translate metanoea as “repentance” is “possibly the worst translation in the New Testament.”[cc] Louw and Nida’s rough definition would be, “to change one’s way of life as the result of a complete change of thought and attitude with regard to sin and righteousness - ‘to repent, to change one’s way, repentance.’”[dd] The trouble is that the English word “repent” means “to be sorry again (repeatedly).” It comes from the Latin (impersonal). John did not call on the people to be sorry, but to change their mental attitudes and conduct. It has been hopelessly mistranslated. “The tragedy of it is that we have no one English word that reproduces exactly the meaning and atmosphere of the Greek word. The Greek has a word meaning to be sorry (metamelomai) which is exactly our English word repent and it is used of Judas (Matthew 27:3). John was a new prophet with the call of the old prophets: “Repent ye!” (Joel 2:12; Isaiah 55:7; Ezekiel 33:11, 15).[ee]
of sins (hamartia)
1)    equivalent to 264
1a)    to be without a share in
1b)    to miss the mark
1c)    to err, be mistaken
1d)    to miss or wander from the path of uprightness and honor, to do or go wrong
1e)    to wander from the law of God, violate God’s law, sin
2)    that which is done wrong, sin, an offence, a violation of the divine law in thought or in act
3)    collectively, the complex or aggregate of sins committed either by a single person or by many.
 “Crying out,” to call, shout (for help or in a tumultuous way), cry out. (Acts 21:34 “Some in the crowd shouted one thing, some another; and as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks.”)
From Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary on “crying out.”
1.       βοάω boáō; contracted boṓ, fut. boḗsō, from boḗ, cry. To cry aloud, exclaim (Luk_18:38; Act_17:6; Act_21:34. break forth and shout Gal 4:27; (both Is 54:1) (The Complete Word Study Dictionary).
2.       Cries of anguish or for help: Jesus on the cross: Matthew 27:46  (And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”); Mark 15:34 (At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”); evil spirits when leaving a person: Acts 8:7 (for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured); sick people: Luke 9:38 (Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.); 18:38 (ἐβόησεν λέγων, “Then he shouted, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’”).
3.       Of prayer as calling on God, Is 58:9; Luke 18:7 (And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?); Num. 12:13.
4.       In this context, the word signifies:
(a)      “to raise a cry,” whether of joy, Gal. 4:27, or vexation, Acts 8:7;
(b)     “to speak with a strong voice,” Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:3; 15:34; Luke 3:4; 9:38 (some mss. have anaboao, here: see No. 2); John 1:23; Acts 17:6; 25:24 (some mss. have epiboao, No. 3, here);
(c)     “to cry out for help,” Luke 18:7, 38.[ff]

[a] “Reign,” hegemonia, from the word for “government,” i.e. (in time) official term, reign. It’s where we get the English word, “hegemony.”
[b] “Ruler,” tetrarch, a governor of the fourth part of a region. Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos) 1995.
[c] “Word.” The term translated “word” here is not logos which is laden with heavy theological weight, but rhema, which means an utterance, a matter or topic, a saying. Because of its simplicity, some conservative commentators have seen the possibility in it of reference to the call of God to John to begin ministry. I don’t see that, but it may just be me.
[d] “wilderness,” or “desert,” eremos. The Synoptics differ widely as to details, but all three locate him “in the wilderness,” cf. Mark 1:4; Matthew 3:1 (adding “of Judea”). See more on note m.
[e] “And he.” “Here” (kai) is not translated because of differences between Greek and English style. Due to the length and complexity of the Greek sentence, a new sentence was started here in the translation.
[f] “Repent,” metanoeite. To think differently or afterwards, i.e. reconsider, repent, reversal (of a decision).
[g] Aphesis, freedom, pardon, deliverance, forgiveness, liberty, remission. The word (aphesis) “occurs in Luke more frequently than in all the other New Testament writers combined” (Vincent’s Word Studies). In medical writers it is used for the relaxing of disease.
[h] hamartia, sin, offense, sinful. Originally from hamartano, to miss the mark (and so not share in the prize), i.e. to err (especially morally), to sin, for your faults, offend, sin, trespass.
A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins was a call for preparation for the arrival of salvation. To participate in this baptism was a recognition of the need for God’s forgiveness with a sense that one needed to live differently as a response to it (Luke 3:10-14).
[i] Luke has John quote loosely from Isaiah 40:3-5.
[j] “Crying,” boao. To call, shout (for help or in a tumultuous way), cry out.
[k] Wilderness or “desert.” The syntactic position of the phrase “in the wilderness” is unclear in both Luke and the LXX. The MT favors taking it with “Prepare a way,” while the LXX takes it with “a voice crying out.” If the former, the meaning would be that such preparation should be done “in the wilderness.” If the latter, the meaning would be that the place from where John’s ministry went forth was “in the wilderness.” There are Jewish materials that support both renderings: 1QS 8:14 and 9.19-20 support the MT while certain Rabbinic texts favor the LXX (see D. L. Bock, Luke [BECNT], 1:290-91(cited in Vincent, Word Studies). While it is not absolutely necessary that a call in the wilderness led to a response in the wilderness, it is not unlikely that such would be the case. Thus, in the final analysis, the net effect between the two choices may be minimal. In any case, a majority of commentators and translations take “in the wilderness” with “The voice of one crying” (D. L. Bock; R. H. Stein, Luke [NAC], 129; I. H. Marshall, Luke [NIGTC], 136 (cited in Vincent, Word Studies).
[l] Valley (pharagx). Here only in N.T., though in the LXX and ancient Greek. A ravine or valley hedged in by precipices.
[m]This call to “make paths straight” in this context is probably an allusion to preparation through repentance as the verb the verb ποιέω (poieō) reappears in vv. 8, 10, 11, 12, 14 (NET).
[n] All flesh (πᾶσα σὰρξ, pãsa sàrx). In the NT, this word is only used of the human race. However, in the LXX it also is occasionally used of animals. The figurative language speaks of the whole creation preparing for the arrival of a major figure, so all obstacles to his coming are removed. It is like creation’s rolling out the red carpet. 
[o]The salvation of God (σωτήριον τοῦ θεοῦ, to sotērion tou theou). The saving act of God. This phrase is a good description of a key element of Luke’s Gospel which has in mind the message of Christ for all humanity. It is the universal Gospel. Cf., Luke 1:76-77, Luke 2:29-30. It is a quotation from Isa 40:3-5. Though all the synoptic gospels use this citation from Isaiah, only Luke cites the material of vv. 5-6. His goal may well be to get to the declaration of v. 6, where all humanity (i.e., all nations) see God’s salvation (see also Luke 24:47).
[p] So Joseph Fitzmyer (Gospel According to Luke: Anchor Bible Series, Vol. 28, [Doubleday], 1981, p. 450) though Craddock (Harper’s Bible Commentary [New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc.], 1988, p. 1010) disagrees.
[q] Reginald Fuller, The Atonement (Doubleday, 1987),  p. 95).
[r] Fitzmyer, op. cit., p. 452.
[s] Rudolph Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 2, (Scribners and Sons, 1935), p. 126).
[t] Josephus, Antiquities,18.5,2.
[u] Hans Conzelmann, The Theology of Luke, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974).
[v] Following Beverly Gaventa, Texts for Preaching (W/JKP, 1994), p. 18.
[w] Ibid., p. 18.
[x] J. Christian Wilson, in Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. IX, Number 1, December, 1997, p.2.
[y]Achtemeier, Paul J., Th.D., Harper’s Bible Dictionary, (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc.) 1985.
[z] William Blake MacCauley, Luke the Historian in the Light of Research (London: Dinsmore Press, 1937), pp. 167f.
[aa]Mays, James Luther, Ph.D., Editor, Harper’s Bible Commentary, (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc.) 1988.
[bb]Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.) 1995.
[cc] Archibald Thomas Robertson, Word Pictures In The New Testament, Vol. 2: Luke & John (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1937, 1997).
[dd]Louw, Johannes P. and Nida, Eugene A., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains, (New York: United Bible Societies) 1988, 1989.
[ee] Robertson, Word Pictures.
[ff]W.E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger and William White, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson), 1996.