Sunday School Lesson
Lesson 3 (KJV)
John the Baptist Appears
Devotional Reading: John 1:29–42
Background Scripture: Luke 3:1–20; John 1
Luke 3:2b–6, 15–18
2b The word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.
3 And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins;
4 As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth;
6 And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
15 And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not;
16 John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire:
17 Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable.
18 And many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people
He came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.—Luke 3:3
From Darkness to Light
Unit 1: God’s Preparation
After participating in this lesson, each learner will be able to:
1. Identify the Old Testament passage John quoted.
2. Compare and contrast Luke 3:15–18 with Matthew 3:11–12; Mark 1:7–8; and John 1:24–28.
3. Articulate whether he or she should or should not intentionally seek to have a personal wilderness experience.
How to Say It
Herod Antipas Hair-ud An-tih-pus.
Pontius Pilate Pon-shus or Pon-ti-us Pie-lut.
tetrarch teh-trark or tee-trark.
Tiberius Caesar Tie-beer-ee-us See-zer.
A. Wilderness Experiences
For a season I worked as an intern at a church located in the Navajo Nation in Arizona. I learned that living in a new location gave me new opportunities to deepen my relationship with God. The internship became a wilderness experience—both physically and spiritually. As I served the congregation, I better understood my personal limitations regarding ministry. Though the experience challenged me, it also led me to grow as a servant of the body of Christ.
So-called wilderness experiences are memorable because of how they have the potential to change a person. Though these experiences might be disorienting and filled with challenges, God can use them to draw people closer to Him for greater service, as in the examples of Elijah (1 Kings 19:1–9) and Paul (Galatians 1:17–18). In what may be called a ripple effect, a person’s wilderness experience has the potential to change many others as well, not just the person with the experience.
B. Lesson Context
All four Gospels tell the story of John the Baptist, a forerunner of Jesus (Matthew 3:1–12; Mark 1:1–8; Luke 1:5–25, 57–66; John 1:19–34; 3:22–36). We take care not to confuse him with the John who wrote the Gospel that bears that name.
The Gospels describe John the Baptist and his preaching as coming in the type of the prophet Elias (that is, Elijah; see Matthew 11:13–14; 17:11–13; Mark 9:11–13; Luke 1:17; compare John 1:21–27). John came as the last prophet of Israel. As such, his task was to “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17, lesson 1; compare Malachi 4:5–6).
John spent his formative years in the wilderness (Luke 1:80). Some students of the New Testament propose that while in the wilderness John interacted with a Jewish sect known as the Essenes. Unlike the parties of the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the Essenes are not mentioned in the New Testament. However, historians of the first century AD, including Josephus, attest to their existence and ascetic practices. Though similarities exist between the practices of the Essenes and those of John, Scripture is silent regarding any association that John may have had with that group.
John’s birth is described in Luke 1:57–66 (see lesson 2). After pausing to tell of the birth of Jesus (Luke 2), Luke reintroduces his audience to John. He does so by setting the context of John’s public ministry within the political and religious context of the day (see 3:1–2a). Luke mentions, among others, Tiberius Caesar (Roman emperor, AD 14–37), Pontius Pilate (governor of Judaea, AD 26–36), Herod Antipas (tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, 4 BC–AD 39), and two high priests (variously served, AD 7–36). Luke states that the narrative of John the Baptist in today’s text occurred in the “fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar” (3:1), which dates to either AD 28 or 29.
Luke’s references to these leaders do more than merely establish a time frame for events recorded in his Gospel. The inclusion of these rulers reminds Luke’s intended audience (which may be primarily Gentile in background) that the Jewish people of this time lived under foreign Roman occupation. They were waiting for a savior who would free them from foreign occupation (compare Luke 24:21; John 6:15; Acts 1:6). John, however, came into this context preaching a message of a different sort of salvation. Matthew 3:1–2, 11–12; Mark 1:4–8; and John 1:24–28 are parallel to the two segments of today’s text.
I. The Prophet Appears
A. In the Wilderness (vv. 2b–3)
2b. The word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.
The word of God came to Old Testament prophets and led them to action (see 1 Chronicles 17:3–4). Those prophets based their proclamations on having received “the word of the Lord” (examples: Jeremiah 1:2; Hosea 1:1; Micah 1:1; Haggai 1:1).
Jesus later proclaimed, however, that John was much more than a prophet (Luke 7:24–28). John brought a message that earlier prophets could not.
As the son of Zacharias, John was in the lineage of Israel’s priesthood (see Luke 1:8–9, lesson 1). Scripture does not indicate that John pursued a priestly role like his father.
The parallel passage in Matthew’s Gospel adds that John was “preaching in the wilderness of Judaea” (Matthew 3:1). This remote and mountainous region is found around the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.
In Scripture, the wilderness was significant for God’s people. A wilderness served as the backdrop for their chastisement (see Ezekiel 20:35–38) and for their renewal (see Hosea 2:14–23). Jesus even spent time in the wilderness before His public ministry (Matthew 4:1–11; Mark 1:12–13; Luke 4:1–13). The wilderness also served as the context that prepared John the Baptist for his public ministry.
What Do You Think?
How can you be attentive to God’s Word when you feel “in the wilderness” because of life’s challenges?
How will you continue to memorize God’s Word (see Psalm 119:11) so that it will be readily available to you at all times?
3. And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
The country in which John preached included the town of Bethabara beyond the Jordan (see John 1:28; 10:40). John’s work fulfilled the prophecy of John’s father that John would “give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins” (Luke 1:77). Long after John’s death, the leaders of the first-century church continued to preach a message of repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38).
The act of repentance requires that people acknowledge their sin and turn to God (see Jeremiah 31:19). Showing repentance is the first step that a person can make to receive God’s forgiveness and salvation (see 2 Corinthians 7:10). Calling sinful humans to repentance was a central component of Jesus’ earthly ministry (see Luke 5:32; Acts 5:31).
The Greek word translated remission is elsewhere translated “forgiveness” (Acts 13:38; 26:18; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14), and that is the sense here. When people repent of their sins, they receive forgiveness from God (compare Acts 5:31).
The practice of water baptism to indicate spiritual cleansing did not originate with John. The prophet Ezekiel described how water would metaphorically cleanse God’s people from their moral impurities and would show the presence of God’s Spirit (Ezekiel 36:25–28; compare Psalm 51:2). Further, the immersion of a person into water served as a way for non-Jews (Gentiles) to signify their conversion to Judaism. Archaeological findings reveal that first-century Jewish neighborhoods and homes sometimes included large ritual baths where this practice took place.
John’s baptism prepared his audience to receive God’s coming salvation. The act of baptism served as a tangible and outward presentation of an inward change of heart. But since John’s baptism of repentance was preparatory in nature, believers who had received that baptism needed also to be baptized again “in the name of the Lord Jesus” after His ascension. This baptism affirmed their belief in Him and resulted in their receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1–6).
We see the longer, Trinitarian formula of “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” in Matthew 28:19. Unlike John’s baptism, Christian baptism pantomimes the historical facts of Jesus’ death and resurrection (see Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12; 1 Peter 3:21).
What Do You Think?
How is repentance for sins necessary in the life of an already baptized believer?
How can you incorporate the practice of repentance into your daily rhythms?
B. Fulfilling an Ancient Message (vv. 4–6)
4. As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Luke quoted the words of Esaias the prophet (Isaiah) in order to show that John’s message fulfilled the Old Testament prophets. A close word-by-word comparison between Isaiah 40:3–5 and Luke 3:4–6 will show differences between the two texts. This is because Luke quoted from the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament. The differences between the texts highlight how Luke interpreted the words of the prophet.
The context of what was written by the Old Testament prophet celebrated the return of captive Israelites to a restored Jerusalem (see Isaiah 40:1–2). The people were to declare God’s faithfulness to Jerusalem (40:9–11) and to all people who “wait upon the Lord” (40:31). God’s restoration and salvation was seen to be at hand for His people.
Luke took the premise of the prophet’s text and applied its proclamation to John—he would call people to prepare for God’s work of salvation. John provided spiritual direction in light of God’s salvation.
John was like one crying in the wilderness, preaching a message of repentance, forgiveness, and baptism (see Luke 1:80; 3:2–3). He proclaimed a message of hope to prepare the people to repent and accept God’s redemptive work. Luke’s audience would have understood the immediate connection between the Lord and Christ Jesus (compare 1:43, 76; 2:11).
What Do You Think?
How will you follow the example of John and “prepare … the way of the Lord” (Luke 3:4) among your neighbors?
What are possible “wilderness experiences” that have prepared you to communicate the gospel to other people?
5. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth.
All four Gospel accounts quote sections of Isaiah 40:3 to describe John’s ministry (see Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4–6; John 1:23). The other Gospel accounts do not include the material from Isaiah 40:4–5 that is found in Luke 3:5–6.
The metaphor of land being filled and brought low is an image for the humbling nature of repentance (compare Luke 1:52; 14:11; 18:14). Children of God, those people who express repentance for their sin, will have the crooked and perverse ways of their lives made straight (see Philippians 2:15).
By quoting the prophet in this manner, Luke illustrates the scope of God’s salvation (see Luke 2:30–32). His salvation serves to “guide our feet into the way of peace” (1:79; see lesson 2).
When I lived overseas, springtime was pothole season. After months of winter freezes, giant potholes would appear in our city’s streets. As temperatures warmed and ice melted, these holes grew and posed a danger to vehicles and drivers.
The local government did not prioritize road maintenance. Once in a while, citizens would take issues into their own hands and fix the ever-deepening chasms. They would sometimes gather large tree branches and place them in the potholes. The branches filled the craters and warned unaware drivers regarding the danger to their vehicles. The fix was temporary, but it protected drivers until the city could provide a more permanent fix.
God’s salvation is a permanent fix for humanity. When people accept God’s salvation, the “crooked” and “rough ways” of sinful humanity will be made “straight” and “smooth” (Luke 3:5). Are you making temporary fixes to your life, or have you accepted the permanent fix of God’s salvation? —L. M. W.
6. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Luke passed over Isaiah’s mention of “the glory of the Lord” (Isaiah 40:5). Instead, Luke interpreted God’s glory as the salvation of God, an interpretation supported by the Greek version of Isaiah’s text. All flesh describes the reach of God’s salvation. People from all the earth would someday experience God’s plan of salvation (see Psalm 98:2; Isaiah 52:10; compare Acts 28:28). God’s salvation will be proclaimed throughout the world, though not all people will accept it (see Matthew 7:14).
II. The Prophet’s Identity
A. The Crowd’s Expectation (v. 15)
15. And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not.
First-century expectations regarding the Jewish Messiah—the anointed Jewish king (compare 2 Samuel 7:16; 22:48–51; Daniel 9:25; Acts 1:6; etc.)—varied greatly. Some Jews expected that the Messiah would be a military leader who would free the Jewish people from foreign oppression. Other Jews anticipated that the Messiah would come in the form of a prophet like Moses (compare Deuteronomy 18:18). The title Christ is the Greek equivalent of Messiah (see John 1:41; 4:25). Both terms mean “the anointed one.”
Both Romans and Jewish religious leaders considered zealous messianic expectations to be dangerous because those beliefs might lead to violence or rebellion. Religious zealots at that time frequently attracted violent followers (see Acts 5:36–37). The expectation of the crowd before John was not one of mild interest. The crowd had a deep curiosity regarding the possible presence of the Messiah.
When Jesus proclaimed something that only a Messiah could proclaim—like the forgiveness of sins—people considered the implications of the teaching in their hearts (see Matthew 21:25; Mark 2:6–8; Luke 5:21–22). John’s proclamation regarding God’s plan of salvation brought many people to wonder about the extent of God’s plan. The crowds were also likely curious of the identity of the person who would inaugurate that plan.
Determining whether John was the promised Messiah was the central concern of the crowd. By the time of his public ministry, he had a following of disciples (see Luke 5:33; 7:18–19). His following continued even after his death (see Acts 18:24–25; 19:1–3). John, however, denied that he was the long-awaited Christ, the Messiah (see John 1:20).
B. The Coming Messiah (vv. 16–18)
16a. John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose.
John picked up on the crowd’s thoughts regarding his possible identity. He answered the crowd and offered a contrast between his work and the work of the Messiah that would come.
John affirmed that the baptism with water had value. However, John’s baptism was temporary; it merely prepared for the baptism by the one mightier than John: the Messiah. The apostle Paul interpreted John’s baptism of repentance as a sign “that they should believe on him which should come after [John], that is, on Christ Jesus” (Acts 19:4).
Ancient roads, especially in the far reaches of the Roman Empire, were likely made of dirt. As a result, the feet of pedestrians would become quite dirty, even if they wore shoes or sandals. Because of these unsanitary conditions, the act of undoing the latchet of another person’s footwear would have been considered disgusting at best. A servant may not even have removed the footwear of his master.
John does not consider himself to be worthy to unloose the sandals of the coming Christ—he considered himself too lowly for the “honor” of this task for the Christ. John’s humility would point people to the coming Christ, while confirming to first-century believers the presence of God’s promised Savior (see Acts 13:23–25).
16b. He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.
John acknowledged the difference between the baptism that he brought and the baptism that Christ was to bring. Whereas John baptized with water, Christ baptizes His followers into God’s Spirit to form “one body” of God’s people (1 Corinthians 12:13).
Jesus promised that the “Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost” would come to “teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance” (John 14:26). This promise expanded the teachings of Israel’s prophets that God’s Spirit would be “poured … from on high” (Isaiah 32:15; see 44:3–4; Joel 2:28–29). The fulfillment of these promises came at Pentecost (see Acts 2:1–41).
Fire is a tool for creation or destruction. On one hand, the fire to which John referred could point to the visible representation of God’s Spirit at Pentecost (compare Acts 2:3). In this sense, fire indicated the establishment of an expanded people of God.
On the other hand, Luke frequently refers to fire as a tool of divine punishment (see Luke 3:9; 9:54; 12:49). Considering what follows in Luke 3:17, this fire is likely one of judgment (compare John 15:6).
17. Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable.
A fan is a shovel-like tool used to toss grain into the air to separate its parts. The useful wheat would fall to the threshing floor to be gathered. Chaff, however, would float in the wind (see Psalm 1:4), eventually falling to the ground where it was gathered and burned (compare Isaiah 5:24).
John’s audience was warned: the coming Christ would remove impurity from among His people. With fire—metaphorical and real—Christ would sanctify the people of God (see 1 Peter 1:7). He would also provide a final judgment to those people who turn their backs on Him (see Isaiah 66:22–24; Matthew 25:41–43; Jude 7; Revelation 14:9–11).
What Do You Think?
How would you respond to a person who says that Luke 3:17 describes a wrathful and unloving God?
What Scriptures come to mind as you consider how you would address that concern?
18. And many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people.
Luke provides an editorial statement: that John said many other things regarding the coming Christ. As John preached, he rebuked the political leaders of the day, particularly Herod Antipas, for their immorality (see Luke 3:19). This led to John’s beheading at the prompting of Herod’s wife, Herodias (see Matthew 14:1–12; Mark 6:14–29).
John understood his role as a servant of God. He proclaimed the message of God’s plan of salvation that was arriving in Christ Jesus. This message was good news and told that a way out of sin and spiritual condemnation had arrived for all people!
What Do You Think?
In what ways can believers exhort others to know and follow Jesus Christ?
What steps will you take to be better prepared to urge other people regarding the gospel of Jesus?
Preparing for a visit from the president of the United States requires numerous Secret Service agents. They arrive months before the president’s visit. Their task is simple: ensure the safety of the president and oversee the security of the visit.
Agents meet with local law enforcement, plan the route of the president’s motorcade, and complete background checks of anyone who might interact with the president. During the president’s visit, Secret Service agents are on high alert for every contingency. A pouch of blood that matches the president’s blood type is even kept in the heavily armored presidential limousine.
John’s service for God was not secretive. He preached and exhorted people to listen to his message of repentance. Through what not-so-secretive way might you prepare other people to receive God’s salvation through Christ Jesus? —L. M. W.
A. Prepare the Way
John came as a forerunner for Christ and a prophet to the people. He served the cause of Christ by baptizing people into a life of repentance and proclaiming the imminent arrival of God’s salvation. Throughout the ministry of John the Baptist, he proclaimed good news, encouraged the downtrodden, and upset powerful leaders. Though Scripture is mostly silent regarding his time in the wilderness (see Matthew 3:4), he came from that place with a message that would change the world.
How might a wilderness experience prepare you to proclaim God’s message of salvation through Jesus Christ? These experiences may cost you; wilderness experiences may not bring you a life filled with the world’s measures of comfort, power, wealth, or honor. Instead, Jesus’ followers are called to follow Him and proclaim the good news of His salvation. In this sense, all believers prepare the world for the way for the Lord.
God, as we wait for Jesus’ return, show us how to prepare others to receive Your salvation. Help us be attentive to the workings of Your Spirit in our “wilderness.” In the name of Jesus. Amen.
C. Thought to Remember
Prepare the way for the Lord!