Jesus in the Synagogue

John 4:43–54; Luke 4:16–30

Leaving Samaria, Jesus ventures to Galilee. John makes a preliminary note in verse 44, which we later see in Luke’s passage under this study. While in Cana, where he performed his first miracle, a father from Capernaum came seeking healing for his son. He’s desperate because of the dire nature of his son’s health (v. 47). This father had traveled fifteen miles, about a day’s journey, uphill. The father didn’t make it back the same day, but his servants met him, and the nobleman inquired about when his son became well (vv. 49–53). 

Luke 4:14–16 is a year, filled in by information from John 1:29–4:54. Since Jesus had time to make an impact within a year, his popularity no doubt grew. So when he returned to his hometown to participate in the synagogue meeting by reading from the prophets and preaching, he would have likely been given attention to see what he would say and do.

From this sketching of the synagogue meeting and other passages, we notice how closely the early church worship mirrored the synagogue meetings. The synagogue meetings were not for worship per se but religious instruction. Synagogues were like an institute of religious education (Contra Apion 2.7; Mosis 3.27), and synagogue worship negates the place of the temple in the life of the Jew. The temple was where worship was rendered, though one might argue that common prayers in the synagogue were a sort of devotion.

There were at least two readings in a synagogue meeting—one from the Law and the other from the prophets (Megillah 4.1–5). The latter was followed by the ruler of the synagogue asking if anyone had a message after their reading (Acts 13:15; 15:21). The Law was read on a liturgical calendar in its entirety in three years (Megillah 29b). Had a priest or Levite been present, they would have been given preference over anyone reading (Gittin 5.8), so Jesus’ reading infers the absence of both. The reading of a prophetic book was the meeting’s conclusion, known as the haftarah. Since this portion of the reading was not preselected, the reader, at their discretion, could select the passage to read (Megillah 4.4).

For Jesus to unravel the scroll to Isaiah, to read this small portion from it, to roll it back up and hand it to the attendant likely took some time because the Jews were respectful in their handling of the Scriptures. After his reading followed a sermon that explained the text and applied it (cf. Luke 4:31–33; 6:6), and afterward, Jesus related this reading to the ministry of Elijah. However, the message and point of this relation appear after they question who Jesus’ father was. The fact that stung the audience was that Elijah, like Jesus, was also sent to Gentiles to work miracles when the people of God refused to receive them. This enraged the audience, who likely anticipated the Messiah, but they couldn’t believe his report because they knew him as Joseph’s son and had seen him grow among them.

When Jesus read from Isaiah, one passage Jesus noted was the one that read, “…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This phrase indicates that the year in which Jesus spoke was the year of Jubilee (cf. Lev. 25:8–17, 50–54; Deut. 31:9–13). During the year of Jubilee, whoever sold themselves as enslaved people or was indebted was released from their debts and freed. If someone lost land as surety, it was returned. Imagine a year where all was forgiven. That’s the year of Jubilee, and it is after this model of the year of Jubilee that chapter seven bankruptcies are modeled.

However, that doesn’t mean that a person was free to rack up as much debt as possible so that it could be forgiven in seven years. No, those usually indebted were in that position because they had to borrow to survive and not because they tried to save the cars, boats, and ways of life to which they became accustomed. This year was for those who found themselves in an unfortunate position of indebtedness—a position in which all Christians find themselves (cf. Matt. 18:23–35). Jubilee was meant to avoid oppression and social classes. On this year, every man was square with one another. It was in this year that Jesus begins healing on the Sabbath—a move that would later draw the ire of the religious leaders of his day. 

The Woman at the Well

John 4:5–42

Some thirty-four miles from Jerusalem, Jesus arrives in Sychar (Shechem; Josh. 24.32). John often uses the term polin (“city”) to indicate a small town, so we’re not in a big metropolis. At noon, he sat by the well when a Samaritan woman came to draw from the well. Water drawing usually occurs in the morning or evening and by a group of women (Gen. 24:11; Exod. 2:15–16). So drawing water alone may reflect her story—that she’s been married multiple times (John 4:18). Jesus asks for a drink at noon, and he asks for a drink upon the cross (John 19:28). 

John is careful to mention that Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. They were a race who sat between being Jew and Gentile, descending from Assyrians and Israelites. In Jesus’ time, Shechem was regarded as the “city of senseless” (T. Levi 7.2). Between AD 6–9, the Samaritans desecrated the temple on the eve of Passover: “It was customary for the priests to open the temple gates just after midnight. … some of the Samaritans came privately into Jerusalem, and thew about dead men’s bodies in the cloisters; on which account the Jews afterward excluded them from the temple” (Jos., Ant. 18.2.2). 

What’s later evident is the Holy Spirit is the living water of which Jesus speaks (John 7:37–39). Like Nicodemus, the woman takes him literally, however. The transition from the discussion about water to her husband is a little odd (vv. 15–16). It’s not a natural conversation progression, but men had met their wives at wells, such as Isaac and Jacob (Gen. 24:17; 29:10). There’s no technical term in Greek for “husband.” However, when it’s used as possessive, it’s implied. Assuming that “husband” is the better translation reminds us that rabbis disapproved of more than three marriages, even in the case of death (b. Yebam. 64b). If the translation is to be “man,” then she’s a serial fornicator. Either way, she’s living with one who isn’t even hers. 

Jesus’ point in asking this question may have been to reveal that he was a prophet, to which she responds (v. 19). She changes the conversation to their differences in worship location. Abraham and Jacob built altars in the region (Gen. 12:7; 33:20), and Mount Gerizim was where Moses blessed the Israelites (Deut. 11:29; 27:12). The dispute, however, has been ongoing for centuries. Worship won’t be tied to a location but to a person. Preachers have often stated that the spirit of worship is the mind and heart we bring to it, while the truth is doing what is commanded. John likely wouldn’t have agreed with that interpretation. Throughout his gospel, Jesus is the person who is associated with spirit and truth, as is belief in him (1:14, 17, 33; 3:5–8; 6:63; et. al.). When we worship through Christ (cf. Heb. 8:1–2), we worship in spirit and truth.

Samaritan belief in Messiah was not so much royal as he was to be instructive. Jesus discloses that he is the one of which she speaks. When the disciples return, they find Jesus speaking with this woman and are surprised. The surprise was that he was a) speaking with a woman and b) that she was Samaritan. Something Jesus often does is break through barriers by which people usually live. He disabuses us of our prejudices. He challenges our feelings on things. This woman left to bring others to Jesus while his disciples urged him to eat. As the people approach him because of the woman’s testimony, Jesus likens them to a field ready for harvest. The very people the disciples may have avoided were those they spent two days among sharing the good news. Later, Jesus commands his apostles to begin in Jerusalem and proceed to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).  

Jesus and John

John 3:22–4:4; Luke 3:19–20

Jesus has been in the land of Judea since the Passover, so the term translated “land” here may indicate the countryside. Either way, Jesus is likely heading north of Jerusalem, where John the Baptist is too (3:22–23). Jesus is not doing the baptizing, though (cf. 4:2). The exact location where they were performing baptisms is disputed, but Aenon is a word meaning “many springs.” The verse tells us that water was plentiful there (3:23). The author mentions John not yet being in prison, something he assumes his audience was familiar with. 

A dispute arises about purification (cf. Lev. 14:8). There are many reasons a person might be baptized or purify themselves (cf. Heb. 6:1–2; 9:10). Unique to John was that he did this in repentance in preparation for the kingdom of heaven. People were “getting right” with God through John via his baptism, so the nature of it may have led to the dispute since it differed from the usual rite. 

Next, John’s disciples come to him concerned about those going to Jesus. They may have feared that the dispute was because of their varying personalities—some were going to John to be baptized while others went to Jesus. John, in answering, doesn’t feel threatened, unlike modern preachers might. He was doing God’s will and wouldn’t supersede the mission God gave him. That mission was to point others to Jesus, not to rival him. 

John mentions to his audience that Jesus had the spirit without measure. The rabbis believed that God gave portions of his spirit to prophets. “Even the Holy Spirit resting on the prophets does so by weight, one prophet speaking one book of prophecy and another speaking two books” (Lev. Rab. 15:2). Jesus, however, had the fullness of the Spirit. Here in this passage are Father, Son, and Spirit, all mentioned. It’s important to note this passage’s active, present tense verbs. “He who believes” is ongoing, not a one-time thing. 

As much as believing is something ongoing, so is not believing. We don’t like to talk much about God’s wrath because it can sound too harsh and dilute our picture of a loving God. The author mentioned that Jesus wasn’t sent to condemn the world (v. 17), so this conclusion eliminates any misunderstanding that judgment is nonexistent (v. 36). God’s wrath isn’t God losing his temper. John has already shown us that the father came to earth as the son, and the son endured the cross to keep us from condemnation. God would rather die than we should incur his wrath. 

In the Old Testament, God is often described as “slow to anger” (Exod. 34:6). The phrase used literally translates to “long of nose.” Anytime anger is translated from Hebrew, it comes either from “nose,” “heat,” or “hot nose.” When a person becomes angry, their face often flushes, hence “hot nose.” God, however, is described as “long of the nose,” meaning it takes much longer for his face to flush. He’s more patient and longsuffering and gives many chances for change. When we read about his judgment on Pharoah, remember that he sent plagues to provoke Pharoah to change. When he refused and pursued the Israelites, God gave him over to the consequences of his actions—the man who drowned all Israelite boys in the river was himself, along with his fighting men, drowned. Some may still struggle with this, but we can’t forget that Pharoah oppressed others who God also loved. That brokenness in our world is what God sought to repair through Jesus. 

Meanwhile, John the Baptist removed himself from the scene as Jesus’ disciples continued baptizing. He went to Herod and rebuked him for being married to Herodias, his niece. Herod had divorced the daughter of the Nabatean king to do this, but Herodias had divorced his half-brother, Philip. Jewish law prohibited this very thing (Lev. 18:16; 20:21). John had the boldness to rebuke a ruler and wound up in prison for it. Once Jesus learns of John the Baptist’s imprisonment, he heads to Galilee (Matt. 4:12; Mark 1:14), but he has to go through Samaria to get there (John 4:3–4). 

Jesus and Nicodemus (& Co)

John 2:23–3:21

Believing in Jesus’ name is a reiterated point from the book’s opening (1:12–13; 2:23; cf. 1 John 3:23; 5:13). The name, Jesus the Christ, literally means God Saves, The Anointed. Paul often referred to him as Christ Jesus (The Anointed Jesus). “Christ” is a title more so than a name. Later, Jesus prays for protection in the name God gave him (John 17:11-12). Simply put, to believe in the name of Jesus is to believe that the one and only God saves through him (cf. Acts 3:16; 4:12). A key theme in John’s gospel is that Jesus is God (1:1–2, 14). Here again, an attribute of God is applied to Jesus (2:24) because only God knows the mind and hearts of men.

The result of the signs Jesus did (2:23) was drawing the attention of an influential Jewish leader. Nicodemus is a Pharisee and ruler of the Jews (3:1). Corroborating evidence demonstrates that the name was common in Palestine at this time. Despite Pharisees often appearing as opponents of Jesus, Nicodemus and a few others were more amenable to him. Coming to Jesus at night has caused a lot of speculation. Maybe he wanted a private audience or was afraid to be seen with him. We don’t know, and we’re not told. Nicodemus addresses Jesus very respectfully and cannot deny the signs he has performed. Still, it would appear he is approaching Jesus on behalf of some group (“we” in v. 2). When Jesus replies, he uses the plural “you” in verses 7 and 11–12.  

Jesus’ answer isn’t altogether best translated in English Bibles. It should say “born from above” or “born anew” rather than “born again.” Jesus is pointing to a heavenly birth, but Nicodemus envisions only the natural birth a mother gives to a child. Being born of water and Spirit entails baptism (1 Cor. 6:11; 12:13; Titus 3:5). This particular passage is the most quoted baptismal passage from second-century Christian literature. Plus, baptism has occupied portions of chapter 1 (vv. 24–34), and the Spirit is mentioned in conjunction with baptism at Christ’s immersion by John. The contrast between natural and spiritual birth has already been highlighted in 1:12–13. 

The conversion language is taken from Ezekiel 36:25–27, where water and spirit work to cleanse the heart and achieve inner transformation. Gentile converts to Judaism were regarded as newborn children.  “And the legal status of a convert who just converted is like that of a child just born” (b. Yebam. 22a). “A convert who just converted is like a child just born” (b. Yebam. 48b). Here we have the connection between conversion and infancy in Jewish law. The spirit associated with water in Ezekiel 36 was symbolized as the wind in Ezekiel 37.

Nicodemus, an established and recognizable teacher, fails to understand. The earthly things are water and wind, and the heavenly things are rebirth from above by the Spirit. Therefore, heaven can only give divine wisdom—the Spirit (1:32–33), angels (1:51), and the Son of Man (3:13). Yet it’s the Son of Man who will be lifted, as the serpent in the wilderness, so that all who believe may have eternal life (cf. 1:4). Each time you see “believe” or one of its cognates, think “faith,” or “trust” as I much prefer. It’s the same term translated as faith used here as belief.  

The most famous verse of Scripture, John 3:16, appears to begin John’s reflection on the interview, given the past tenses from there till verse 21. We can’t trust the words in red but must rely on the grammar. When we read the first few words, “For God so loved the world,” we often think this is how much he loved the world. Yet, the tense doesn’t suggest the extent to which he loved the world but how he loved the world. It would be better to think, “God loved the world this way: He gave his only son.” The fact that God didn’t send Jesus to condemn the world should make us pause in how we present the good news. Instead, it’s often presented as a threat: God loves you, so you’d better obey or burn in hell. I much prefer that Jesus came to rescue us from the consequence of our own decisions, and if we accept his rescue, we don’t have to face those consequences.    

Water to Wine; Cleansing the Temple

John 2:1–22

We’re going to read about the first miracle Jesus performed, and he did so at a wedding. Men wedded between 18–24 and women as early as 13 or 14. A Jewish wedding was a joyful occasion for the bride, groom, their families, and the community. On the wedding day, the bride was taken from her father’s home to her husband in a joyful procession. The bride veiled her face and was surrounded by bridesmaids. Friends of the groom would have led her to her husband, and they were crowned with garlands. After, the couple signed the wedding contract, and the marriage supper followed. The celebration could last an entire day, and friends of the bridegroom would lead them to the bridal chamber. 

When we arrive at the setting, they’re at the marriage supper. Jesus was with his mother and disciples, so this is likely a relative or friend, which may explain why Mary brought the problem to Jesus. Wine symbolized joy: “There is no rejoicing save with wine” (b. Pesach 109a). To not have wine was an embarrassment. Moreover, Jews envisioned the Messianic age as flowing with wine. 

    Therefore they shall come and sing in the height of Zion,

    Streaming to the goodness of the LORD

    For wheat and new wine and oil,

    For the young of the flock and the herd;

    Their souls shall be like a well-watered garden,

    And they shall sorrow no more at all. (Jer. 31:12)

    Behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD,

    “When the plowman shall overtake the reaper,

    And the treader of grapes him who sows seed;

    The mountains shall drip with sweet wine,

    And all the hills shall flow with it.

    I will bring back the captives of My people Israel;

    They shall build the waste cities and inhabit them;

    They shall plant vineyards and drink wine from them;

    They shall also make gardens and eat fruit from them. (Amos 9:13–14)

Scripture is clear that drunkenness is sinful (1 Cor. 5:11; Gal. 5:21). Yet we don’t know to what degree the wine here was intoxicating or not. Nevertheless, what we call wine and what they call wine are different things. People often added water to wine to dilute it when it was strong, and this was what they called wine. “We call a mixture wine although the larger part of the component parts is water” (Plutarch, Mor. 140f; c. first century). The average person who drank in the first century would have considered drinking undiluted wine barbaric. 

Jesus’ reply in verse four might come across as disrespectful, and some argue for such an interpretation, but, at best, we might say it was distant. Addressing his mother as “woman” would have been akin to our “ma’am,” but the second phrase is often disrespectful. This verse and the next seem odd until we further understand. “My hour has not yet come” is another way of saying, “Once I begin miracles, my path to the cross begins.” Mary’s reply was one of full faith. Mary trusts that Jesus will answer her entreaty. Jesus has pots filled with water, and as the master of the banquet drank the water, it turned to wine. This was Jesus’ first miracle. 

At Passover, Jews traveled from all over to go to Jerusalem. They would have gone up regardless of their direction because the city was on a hill. Herod had renovated the temple. Here’s how Josephus described it, 

The exterior of the building wanted nothing that could astound either miind or eye. For, being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up that it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from the solar rays. To approaching strangers it appeared from a distance like a snow-clad mountain; for all that was overlaid with gold was of the purest white. (Wars 5.5.6)

The rabbis, who did not like Herod in the least, admitted that “he who has not seen the Temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building” (b. B. Bat 4a).  

Jesus is in the temple courts (hieron), in distinction from the actual temple (2:20; naos). Interestingly enough, when Paul refers to the church and individual Christian as the temple of the Holy Spirit, he uses naos (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). For the pilgrims who traveled far, the sale of sacrificial animals rendered a service to them rather than having to carry an animal a long distance. Also, considering where one came from, they would need to exchange their local currency with that of Jerusalem to purchase the animals. Previously, this was done across the Kidron Valley on the Mount of Olives. For some reason, it had moved into the temple courts. Jesus’ zeal for the temple was akin to Phineas, who drove out sin from the tabernacle. Because his actions bucked convention, the Jews wanted a sign to justify what he’d done. He foretold of his own temple (body) being destroyed and raised in three days, but they believed he was speaking of Herod’s temple. Even his disciples wouldn’t understand it until he rose from the dead.   

Calling the First Disciples

John 1:35–51

John was a spiritual leader whose sole mission was to point out Jesus, but those who saw in him the mission of God took up with him. This is why John had disciples (v. 35; cf. 3:25–26). As the previous day, John proclaimed Jesus aloud for all to hear (1:36; cf. v. 29), and two of his disciples began following Jesus. What’s of note is that John doesn’t follow Jesus but continues his ministry. Some have argued that Jesus was a disciple of John because he was known in relation to John (cf. Mark 6.14–15; 8:27–28), but John didn’t see it that way (John 3:30). 

One of the disciples that left John to follow Jesus was Andrew, Peter’s brother. The gospel’s author is believed to have been the second, so Andrew and John left the Baptizer to follow Jesus. Andrew goes to Peter and brings him to Jesus. When Simon Peter sees Jesus, he receives a new name—Cephas. Both Cephas and Peter are names meaning “rock.” There’s a lot of significance to this. Jesus said whoever hears his words and does them is like one who builds their house on the rock (Matt. 7:24). Later, Peter is contrasted with the rock upon which the church is built (Matt. 16:18). 

The next day, Jesus calls Philip. Disciples then opted to attach themselves to a rabbi, so Jesus calling disciples was not expected (cf. 15:16). Bethsaida means “place of fishing,” and it’s where Andrew and Peter were also from. This city is one of the most frequently mentioned cities—Jerusalem and Capernaum being more so. A blind man was healed here (Mark 8:22–25), and the feeding of the four thousand occurred in a deserted place nearby too. Yet, the city was cursed because they did not accept Jesus despite the miracles performed there (Matt. 11:21). 

Nathanael isn’t mentioned in any of the other gospel accounts, so it’s been presumed that his name was Bartholomew—the name being a surname (Bar-Tholomais, or son of Tholomaiso)—who’s often linked with Philip (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:14). By the first century, Jewish rabbis had puzzled together Scriptures about an anticipated Messiah. He was one of whom Moses spoke (Deut. 18;15, 18) and the prophets predicted (Is. 9:1–7; 11:1–5, 10–12). Nathanael was himself from Cana in Galilee, so it seems odd that he would look down on Nazareth. However, many others questioned Christ coming from Galilee (John 7:41, 52). 

Jesus’ address to Nathanael is ironic. Jacob, whose name was later changed to Israel, was a deceiver. Yet, Nathanael, unlike the original Israel, was not deceitful. Jesus’ knowledge of Nathanael points to him being a prophet, which accounts for his response. Jesus promises greater things to come and identifies himself with Jacob’s ladder (v. 51; cf. Gen. 28:12). As the angels ascended and descended on Jacob’s ladder, an indication of divine revelation, so Jesus’ disciples would receive further revelation. It’s often tempting to think “Son of Man” references that Jesus was born of a woman and thus represents his humanity. However, the title is taken from Daniel 7:13 and is a divine title.  

John and Jesus

John 1:19–34

John had previously immersed some Pharisees and Sadducees in the Jordan, but now priests and Levites came to him—inquiring who he was. One reason for the Levites’ arrival was that some expected the Messiah to be from the tribe of Levi. The book of 1 Maccabees reflects the longing for a Levitical kingly Messiah, and many expected him to be a priest. He, first, informs them that he isn’t the Messiah or Christ (1:20). Both terms mean “anointed” and were often used about leaders of Israel, especially kings. In Isaiah, Cyrus is called God’s anointed (Is. 45:1), so the title wasn’t limited to Jesus’ role. However, by this time, the word had taken on a meaning of the savior of Israel, God’s anointed one (cf. Ps. of Sol. 17:32). Elijah came to be associated with the figure because of Malachi 4:5–6. The belief was that either Elijah himself would return and be the messiah or someone like him, which was what John was. The prophet they expected was one like Moses (Deut. 18:15). 

John was none of these, though he was the one like Elijah (Luke 1:17). John cites Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 as an answer—he later tells people that he was to prepare the way of the Lord (John 3:28). Since John was none of the expected people, they ask why he was baptizing, likely because by so doing he was gathering disciples. John points them further to the one who is the come. He will come from among them, and it’s he who’s preferred over John. 

The next day, Jesus arrives at the Jordan—likely from his temptation. John proclaims Jesus to the crowd, and while his account doesn’t include the baptism of Jesus, it points out John’s response to it. While in the previous lesson, we discussed why Jesus was baptized, we see here that it was also for him to be revealed to Israel (v. 31). As we’ve also previously read, Jesus would be the one to baptize with the Spirit. 

Several baptisms are mentioned in the New Testament: John’s baptism of repentance, baptism of fire, baptism for the dead (1 Cor. 15:9), baptism into Moses (1 Cor. 10:1–2), baptism of the Holy Spirit, and baptism in making disciples. Since only Jesus performs this, we have to look and see what exactly it is. Before he ascended into heaven, Jesus reiterated the promise (Acts 1:4–5), and we see it performed on Pentecost (Acts 2:32–33). There were only two examples in Scripture when this was applied: on Pentecost and Cornelius’ household (Acts 10:44–48; 11:15–18). This baptism enabled apostles to remember what they’d learned and be taught by God (John 14:26). They were also able to perform wonders and signs to accompany their preaching (Acts 2:43; cf. Heb. 2:3–4). Concerning Cornelius’ household, baptism with the Spirit was more to convince the Jews that Gentiles were worthy of salvation, too (Acts 10:44–48; 11:12). Moreover, it was God’s way of acknowledging the Gentiles, and the Jews’ understood that God makes no distinction (Acts 11:8–9).  

Considering the numerous baptism we read about in the New Testament, we must establish a timeline because, by 64 CE, Paul wrote that there was only one baptism (Eph. 4:4–6). Jesus was crucified and ascended to heaven anywhere between 28–33 CE. We like to think that Jesus was born in 1 CE, but he was more than likely born between 4–6 BCE, given the dating of the death of Herod. Gentiles received the baptism of the Holy Spirit some 8–10 years later, putting us at 43 CE at the latest. This is important because by the time Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he stated that there was one baptism leading us to conclude that Holy Spirit baptism was no longer a factor. Just as John’s baptism was for a time and purpose (cf. Acts 19:1–7), so was Holy Spirit baptism. However, the immersion that makes us disciples of Jesus is universal and unending (Acts 2:38–39). 

The Baptism and Temptation of the Lord

Matthew 3:13–4:11; Mark 1:9–13; Luke 3:21–4:13

Jesus’ baptism has been understood as the two births of every believer—one of nature and the other of the Spirit (John 3:3–5). Some have suggested it as a manifestation of the Trinity (Ambrose Luke 2.92) or an example to live to please God (Cyril of Alexandria Luke 11; Cyprian The Good of Patience 6). To argue that Jesus needed cleansing from sin may neglect other passages that speak to Christ’s sinlessness (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5). “In receiving baptism Jesus identified with the people of Israel to whom John addressed his message and started on a path that led to the cross.”

Perhaps to build upon the conclusion of his genealogy, Luke transitioned from Christ’s descent from Adam to Jesus being tempted. Whereas Adam was in the Garden of Eden and tempted to sin, Christ entered the wilderness to be tempted and thus overcame the wiles of the same adversary (cf. Rom. 5:12–21; Ambrose Luke 4.7, 14). The three greatest temptations in the Bible were that of Adam and Eve when they ushered in the fall of humanity, that of Job to distrust and curse God, and that of Christ. The frailty of human nature is seen in two, and the triumph of humanity is witnessed in Christ withstanding the powers of darkness.

Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, coinciding with the Spirit’s appearance and descent as a dove (Luke 3:22). The descent as a dove would have been understood as the presence of God because the Greco-Roman gods often appeared as winged animals. The dove was the symbol of peace and signified the reconciling ministry of the Spirit. One author wrote, “What is noteworthy here is that the presence of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ life brings him into direct and immediate conflict with the forces of evil. The antithesis between the Holy Spirit and the evil in the world apparently had to be brought to light.”

Whether the forty days were literal or typological is a matter of debate. Still, on the surface, it would seem literal. Forty was undoubtedly a period of testing and trial: God poured rain for forty days (Gen. 7:4, 12); Israel wandered forty years (Num. 14:33; Deut. 8:2); a woman was to purify herself for forty days postpartum (Lev. 12:1–4); Moses (Exod. 34:28; Deut. 9:9) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:8) fasted for the same period as Christ too. Of course, it may be preferable to link the fasting of Christ to that of Moses and Elijah, given the upcoming scene on the Mount of Transfiguration. Intertestamental writings highlight Moses (Deut. 18:15–18) and Elijah (Mal. 4:5–6) as eschatological and messianic figureheads. At the same time, some believed that a prophet like either would be the messiah. 

Jesus fasted so that he could know what it was to have a depraved desire, so some believe. Once hungry, Christ was then open to Satan’s work: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Jesus knew and learned (cf. Heb. 5:8) through hunger what it was to be tempted, but through temptation, Jesus shows us what it is like to overcome. He did what we cannot or are unwilling to do. In the temptations, Satan tried to persuade Jesus to become something he was not because God cannot be tempted (James 1:13) to deny himself (2 Tim. 2:13). 

The Lord’s first temptation of hunger would have been enticing, and when people are hungry, they are prone to do the unthinkable (cf. 2 Kings 6:28–29). The identity of Jesus is often a significant theme in the gospels, and Satan is the first to question Jesus’ identity. He did so with the enticement of food—a perceived vulnerability of Christ at the time. Several commentaries categorize the temptations of Christ as “appetite,” “boasting,” and “ambition.” John referred to them as “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” in 1 John 2:16. Though Adam was overtaken by each, Christ could not be swayed. After the temptation, Satan departed, as Luke put it, until an opportune time. The next mention of Satan was when he entered Judas Iscariot (Luke 22:3; cf. John 14:30). In Matthew and Mark, angels were attending to Christ similar to Elijah after his forty days of fasting (1 Kings 19:5). Jesus did what we are often too weak to do: he resisted the devil, so Satan fled from him (James 4:7).

Prepare the Way of the Lord

John has arrived, and he’s been preaching repentance. We must remember that though we know nothing about his formative years, he is of priestly lineage. Whatever training John received, his aged parents likely entrusted his care to those who would raise him to be faithful to God. He gets right to work when he steps into the public from the wilderness. While John is a prophet, he’s not just a prophet (Matt. 11:7–9). He’s the one God chose before he was even in the womb. 

John’s activity attracted religious leaders (Matt. 3:7; Luke 3:7). Pharisees and Sadducees came, but we don’t read about them in the Hebrew Scriptures. When the Greeks spread Hellenistic culture in Judea, a group arose that wanted to remain faithful to the covenant with God. They were called “the pious.” This group aligned with the Maccabees and revolted in a holy war against the Seleucids. The “pious” later became Pharisees—a name meaning “separate”—while those who retired to the desert became the Essenes. The Pharisees were representatives of the Law—oral and written. While the New Testament somewhat vilifies the Pharisees, their intentions were born of a concern for preserving Jewish culture. They wanted ceremonial purity (Mark 7:7ff) and to protect fellow Jews from transgressing God’s commands (Matthew 12:1–2).   

While their origin is ambiguous, the Sadducees were aristocrats. They were typically priests and differed from the Pharisees by enjoying the favor of the rich. The Pharisees wanted the populace’s confidence (Antiq. 13.10.6; cf. 18.1.4). They argued against the oral law and advocated primarily for the Law as higher than the prophets (cf. Matthew 22:23–33). They were not strangers to conflict with the Pharisees. They did not believe in the resurrection, angels, or that a person has a spirit (Acts 23:6–9; Mark 12:18; cf. Antiq. 18.1.4). Furthermore, they denied fate altogether (Antiq. 13.5.9) and believed a particular contribution should be made for sacrifices and that they should not be funded by the temple treasury. They were undoubtedly supporters of Rome, as witnessed by their support of the Hasmoneans. Because of this support, they enjoyed primary influence within the Sanhedrin—a governing body of seventy-one religious and political leaders for the Jews. Although, they would side with the Pharisees from time to time to be tolerated by the populace (Antiq. 18.1.4). Their political ideology gave them a willingness to compromise, which led to the adoption of Hellenistic tendencies. 

John’s address of these two groups is telling (Matt. 3:8; Luke 3:8). Jesus used this exact phrase when addressing the Pharisees (Matt. 12:34; 23:33). To call someone a serpent was insulting and associated with moral deficiency because vipers were believed by the ancients to devour their mothers which may indicate that John intended to convey to the crowd that they were “unfaithful to their heritage” as Jews. Their corruption and satisfaction with the status quo weren’t what God wanted. 

Before John immersed those who came to him, he sternly warned them that their lives be transformed and that the outcome of their faith shines forth in the bearing of good fruit (cf. Origen Luke 22.6). John’s baptism was unique because he administered it when washings (cf. Heb. 6:2) were typically self-administered (2 Kings 5:10, 14; cf. Zech 13:1). Proselyte baptism, from Gentile to Jew, was self-administered but was a one-time observance much like John’s. This baptism was meant to be understood as a conversion. The purposes of John’s baptism of repentance may be summed up as:

  ●   Expressing repentance and turning to a new way of life.

●   Mediating divine forgiveness.

●   Purification from ritual and moral uncleanness.

●   Foreshadowing the ministry of the expected Lord.

●   An initiation into the “true Israel” and not a closed community.

●   A protest against the temple establishment since it took place in the Jordan (Matt. 3:6, 13; Mark 1:5, 9; John 1:28).

If John intended to relay that they were unfaithful to their heritage, he would have further reiterated this belief by adjuring them to not claim their physical heritage as Abraham’s descendants. Since God could raise descendants from Abraham from stones, the Gentiles coming to faith should not be a considerable surprise. Only those showing worthy fruits of repentance would escape the fire.

To demonstrate those worthy fruits of repentance, the crowd asked John what must be done to illustrate those worthy fruits of repentance. Everything he told them to do infers that their pre-repentance behavior was immoral and sinful. Being a hoarder of clothing and food neglected one’s, fellow man. Tax collectors were to gather what was required and no more. The soldiers were to be content with their living and stop robbing people. Each of those addressed dealt not only with stewardship but with a divorce from materialism. Stewardship is a common theme in Luke’s Gospel and is often approached through sharing and even liquidation. Those necessary sacrifices were needed to follow Jesus in his mission because being tied down by materials hindered the complete devotion Christ demanded in spreading the Gospel.

John’s reference to unstrapping the Lord’s sandal has often been interpreted as the work of a slave toward their master. However, it may have been about the marriage custom of the bride to unstrap her husband’s sandal (Gen. 38; Ruth 4:7–8). Holy Spirit baptism is not the same as water baptism because Christ isn’t recorded as having baptized anyone (cf. John 4:2). Long before John the Baptist preached the baptism with the Spirit, the prophets foretold a heavenly outpouring of God’s spirit that would take place in the days of the coming kingdom of the Messianic era (Isaiah 32:15; Ezek. 39:29; Joel 2:28–29). The unmistakable act by which John would know the administrator of Holy Spirit baptism, the Lord, was the one on whom the Spirit would rest (John 1:32–33; cf. Acts 2:33).

Out of the Wilderness, Came John

Around thirty years have passed since Jesus and his family returned and settled in Nazareth. Mark begins the story of the gospel at this point (Mark 1:1). Scholars agree that Mark is the earliest gospel account, followed by Matthew, Luke, and John. Another commonly held view is that Mark wrote his account specifically for the Romans, and we know he was in Rome with Peter (cf. 1 Peter 5:13). Therefore, it might be acceptable to suggest that Mark wrote what Peter preached. “Peter and Paul proclaimed the gospel in Rome … After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, handed on his preaching to us in written form” (Iren., Against Heresies 3.1; c. 200 CE). 

Nevertheless, writing to the Romans, Mark introduces his account as “the beginning of the good news.” When a Roman envisioned the “good news” (Gr. euangelion), they related it to the Emperor. Mark now presents a new Emperor, Jesus the Anointed, the Son of God. The Emperor was the son of a god, but Jesus was the Son of God. The rhetoric is not without intent to sway the minds of the Romans away from Empire and Emperor to Kingdom and Christ. Employing popular Roman propaganda language distinguishes the two, and those who follow King Jesus must esteem him above all else. 

Luke now gives us a historical time frame of this period (Luke 3:1–2). The fifteenth year of Tiberius’ reign was 29 CE. The Jews were under the shadow of a Roman rule having the Gentile governor Pontius Pilate exercising sovereignty over them. Having two high priests named explains the former selected the latter as his successor (Antiq. 18.4.3), so Annas was likely high-priest emeritus. During this time, “the word of God came to John.” This phrase is suggestive of the work of a prophet (cf. Jer. 2:1; Ezek. 3:1; Hos. 1:1–2). During these times, when Jesus was in Nazareth, John came preaching (Matt. 3:1). 

What was it like during this time? Roman governors had occupied the province of Judea as early as 6 CE. Yet, they were ignorant of the Jewish religion. Because of this, the display of the image of the Emperor often kindled the fury of the Jews. Judea was unique because it wasn’t required to worship the Emperor of Rome. Instead, Romans requested them to make offerings to God on behalf of the Emperor (Joseph., Against Apion 2.77; Philo, Embassy to Gaius 23, 40). Because Jewish religion also entailed governance, Roman authorities allowed autonomy in respecting Jewish customs, which the Sanhedrin enforced. Any political matter had to be handled carefully since that might fall under Roman interests. 

From the first when Judea had a Roman governor, Jewish resistance groups formed. Judas the Galilean incited a revolt against the Roman occupiers. While unsuccessful, a political party called the Zealots began due to his efforts. This group prized liberty above all else and only recognized God as their true ruler. Notably, during 26–41 CE, outrage against the Romans was often nonviolent. You might imagine the sentiments of Jews during this period, but it was then that John arose on the scene.  

John came preaching a baptism (cf. Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38) of repentance in preparation for the kingdom of God denoted an eschatological message, but Josephus saw it as something more than that by not relaying to baptism the mere washing of the filth from the flesh (cf. 1 Peter 3:21). 

…for that the washing would be acceptable to [God], if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away of some sins but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. (Antiq. 18.5.2) 

People came from Judea and Jerusalem to receive baptism at the Jordan River. It may be that the two thieves on the cross were among this crowd. However, John’s baptism differs from Jesus’s (Acts 19:1–5). Jewish baptism differed from John’s in some measure. Yet, what may have been difficult for some religious leaders was how John used baptism because the symbolism of the baptism was the final of three steps for Gentiles to convert to Judaism. Since Jews were rather proud of their national identity and heritage, the religious leaders might not have been as keen on John’s baptism. Repentance, as defined, should be thought of as a change of mind and, therefore, of actions. The purpose of the baptism was for conversion after one repented.

Isaiah 40:3 to describe John was precisely how the Essenes used the passage to prefigure the preparation of the coming Messiah (1QS 8.12–14). John prepared for Jesus by reconciling God’s people to the Lord (cf. Mal. 4:6). That John came as a herald was customary when preparing the way for the king (cf. Iliad 1.376–94, 2.59). Luke used a more extended version of this passage than the other Gospel writers. What likely led Luke to use the more extended version by using “every” and “all flesh.”

John’s depicted as the new Elijah, Israel’s greatest prophet (Matt. 3:4; Mark 1:6; cf. 2 Kings 1:8). Elijah, like John, wore simple clothing, ate simple food, delivered a message to God’s nation, and had a significant female enemy. Yet, he unabashedly gave the word of the Lord to Israel. In the end, it resulted in his death. Before then, however, he would see and baptize the Christ whose way he proclaimed.

Young Jesus at the Temple

For the first couple years of his life, Jesus was born and lived in Bethlehem until Joseph received a dream warning him of Herod’s intention. Thus far, Joseph’s dreams have led him to care for Mary and Jesus. His first dream was the word that Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit and that he shouldn’t put her away. His second dream warned that Herod sought Jesus’ life. His fourth dream was an angel telling him how Herod died (Matt. 2:19), and his final dream was urging him to go to Nazareth to avoid Archelaus (Matt. 2:22). When Herod died, his kingdom was divided among his three sons; Archelaus ruled Judea, Samaria, and Idumea (Edom) from 4 BCE–6 CE. Herod Antipas ruled Galilee, where they’d settle. Philip headed the region northeast of Galilee. 

Nazareth was an agricultural village fifteen miles west of the Sea of Galilee and likely where they’d previously dwelt (Luke 2:4). Nazareth was a despised city (John 1:45–46), and some have likened Jesus being called a “Nazarene” to the prophecies that he was despised and rejected. However, the Hebrew term netzer is the shoot or branch of Isaiah 11:1. Matthew’s gospel already began by listing Jesus as a descendant of David (Matt. 1:1), so the ending of this first section of Matthew concludes with him being called a Nazarene, which may have been a play on words. Nevertheless, from here onward, Jesus is often referred to as Jesus of Nazareth. 


Due to this narrative being unique to Luke, Mary may have been one of Luke’s sources. This would explain why she is often addressed after Gabriel appears to her. Each scene after her angelic visit revolves around further confirmation of what the angel told her. Mary even remained with Elizabeth until John’s birth came and, I suppose, was one of those present at his circumcision and naming (Luke 1:57–59).

●       Gabriel’s initial message to Mary included Elizabeth’s son’s information as a part of Mary’s promise (Luke 1:28–38).

●       Elizabeth’s Spirit-filled exclamation upon Mary’s arrival confirmed that Mary was the mother of Elizabeth’s Lord (Luke 1:41–45).

●       Mary’s Magnificat responded to Elizabeth’s exclamation, which acknowledged her being “blessed” for all generations for bearing the Son of God (Luke 1:46–55).

●       Mary remained with Elizabeth until John was born to witness the unfolding of what was told to her (Luke 1:57–63).

●       Zacharias’ blessing of God and prophesying point to John’s mission in the life of Christ as indicated by Zacharias’ speaking of a servant from David’s house when he was of Aaron’s (Luke 1:64–79; cf. 1:5–6).

●       The shepherds arrive at the manger to tell Joseph and Mary what they saw, and she treasured those things in her heart (Luke 2:15–20).

●       Simeon takes the infant Jesus in his arms, blesses him, and then tells Joseph and Mary what the Holy Spirit revealed (Luke 2:25–35).

●       Though it’s unknown what she said, Anna, the prophetess, began to thank God and speak of Jesus (Luke 2:36–38).

Each of these scenes appears to be directed at Mary because she remains the narrative’s focal point, as evidenced by the repeated statement that she treasured all things in her heart (Luke 2:51).

Despite individual scholars claiming this section is fiction, history would attest otherwise as to its probability. Jewish males began their education at a young age and progressed as they aged: “At five years of age for Scripture; at ten, for Mishnah, at thirteen for the commandments; at fifteen for Talmud” (Pirke Aboth 5.22; cf. Nid. 5.6; Meg. 4.6). Jesus, being twelve, would have been naturally curious. Still, the nature of his inquiry shone forth his understanding to the astonishment of the scholars. Moreover, some Bible characters had extra-biblical sources attesting to their prowess as youths: Moses had excellent knowledge as a child (Antiq. 2.230; Philo Moses 1.21); Samuel prophesied at twelve (Antiq. 5.348), and Abraham supposedly distanced himself from his idolatrous father at two weeks old while at fourteen he instructed farmers on livestock and sowing to avoid ravens (Jub. 11.18-24). This was also a characteristic of Greco-Roman figures in literature (cf. Philostratus Vit. Apoll. 1.7; Plutarch Alex. 5; Cicero 2.2; et al.).

Since Roman society was so infatuated with Augustus, Luke may have sought to counteract the god-like esteem of a ruler. Augustus was deified by the time of Luke’s Gospel and was often called “lord” or “savior,” so Luke intended to show that it was Christ who was Lord and Savior rather than Augustus or any other emperor (cf. Horace Carm. 4.5). The very name “Augustus” meant something more extraordinary than human, and the month of August in our calendar is a tribute to him. In the first century, temples were dedicated to Augustus and Julius Caesar to depict them as gods. The imperial cult was a thorn in the side of Christians, which brought about widespread persecution since believers would not call Caesar “lord” or burn incense to him (cf. Mart. Poly. 8.2). Jesus, however, was to reign on David’s throne as the God. 

The birth of Augustus was prophesied and marked by omens. A politician had a dream and, upon meeting young Augustus, identified him as the savior of Rome. The politician (Quintus Catulus) and Cicero dreamed that he was in the lap of and endowed by Jupiter (Zeus), thus making him the “son of a god.” Julius Caesar selected Augustus as his successor (Seutonius Aug. 94). One historian writes, “It is … certain that both Luke and his readers knew of Caesar Augustus, and quite probable that they also knew of at least some of the stories, legends, and traditions that had gathered around him.”  

After this scene in Jesus’ life, the focus turns back to his mother, Mary. They left Jerusalem to return home. After four days, they found him in the temple and were astonished at his comprehension. The point that Mary had not fully understood all the angel told her about her son is further emphasized in verse fifty. They didn’t understand him even though Gabriel said to her that he would be called the “Son of the Most High.” They might have thought that Jesus spoke about Joseph as his father when he meant God because Joseph is identified as his “father” (v. 48).

A problem with this text is that Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, which leads some to believe that Jesus was more human than divine or a created being and not eternal. Those at the Council of Nicea faced this same argument, where Arius believed that Jesus was a created being, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, to the contradiction of John 1:1–14. I prefer the explanation of Millard Erickson on the incarnation:

While he did not cease to be in nature what the Father was, he became functionally subordinated to the Father for the period of the incarnation. Jesus did this for the purposes of revealing God and redeeming humanity. By taking on human nature, he accepted certain limitations [cf. Luke 2:40, 52; Heb. 2:10] upon the functioning of his divine attributes [e.g., omniscience, omnipresence, etc.]. These limitations were not the result of a loss of divine attributes but of the addition of human attributes [and their limitations].

The Scriptural Inaccuracy of Your Nativity Display

Luke 2:8–38; Matthew 2:1–18

Luke’s Gospel emphasizes that God continually looks at those often overlooked by society—the shepherds being but another example. The terms “good tidings,” “savior,” and “the Lord” were all used regarding Caesar Augustus in Roman propaganda. Yet, it was specific to Romans while this good news was “for all the people” (v. 10). The doxology (v. 14) may be juxtaposed to Caesar Augustus’ Pax Romanum because only Christ can bring one peace (John 14:27; 16:33; Phil. 4:7). Each time an angel gives this message of Christ, they figure prominently in these portions of the story of Jesus’ life.

For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? (Heb. 2:2–3) 

The shepherds made known what angels told them. Mary treasured these things, suggesting she may not have understood them. This treasuring occurs again in Luke 2:51, which indicates her pondering on others’ testimonies because multiple testimonies made for an exact case in the Jewish legal system. 

After having Jesus circumcised (vv. 22–24), she was then to wait thirty-three days before being purified once more (Lev. 12:2–6; cf. Exod. 13:2–12; Num. 18:15). The nature of Mary’s sacrifice indicates her poverty. Still, she brought along with her Jesus to present him to the Lord for his service, much like Hannah did with Samuel (1 Sam. 1:22–28). In, perhaps, yet another message of reinforcement for Mary appeared Simeon—a righteous and devout man. Simeon had God’s Holy Spirit upon him, so he would know the “consolation of Israel” when he saw him. This is the fifth reference to the Holy Spirit, so Luke wanted to prove—as he would later write in Acts (cf. 2:16–21)—that Mary lived in the last days before the coming kingdom, or reign, of God. Simeon now saw with his eyes what he believed in faith—the salvation of God (Augustine Sermon 277.17). 

Luke now turns to a prophetess. His treatment of women differs from the other Gospel writers: consider Mary (Luke 1:26–38, 46–56), Elizabeth (1:39–45, 57–66), Anna (2:36–38), the widow (7:11–17), the sinful woman (7:36–50), the women who accompanied Jesus and financed his ministry (8:1–3), the healing of a woman and Jairus’ daughter (8:40–56), et al. Anna’s appearance and rejoicing at Jesus has been thought to be expressive of salvation being available to women too (cf. Bede Homilies on the Gospels 1.18; Origen Luke 17.9). This was a sentiment later shared by the apostle Paul (Gal. 3:28).


From the time the wise men (magi) saw the star until Herod learned their deception was under two years. Nativity displays show the wise men coming to the manger, but the text reports that they went to the house where they were (v. 11). Even the term “young child” indicates a toddler more than a newborn infant. Also, there are often three wise men in nativity displays, but the text doesn’t say how many came (cf. vv. 1, 7). History has numbered three wise men based on the three gifts given to Jesus—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—as well as a sixth-century Greek treatise that gave three names as Melchior, Balthasar, and Gaspar (Excerpta Latina Barbari 51b). But, again, we don’t know how many there were, so we cannot say for sure. There could have been three or thirty or three hundred. 

Joseph receives another message from an angel that Herod is seeking the life of Christ. They fled to Egypt and remained there till Herod died. Matthew uses a passage about Israel for Jesus, demonstrating that Jesus embodies Israel. What Israel was meant to do is done in Christ. Herod’s cruelty and paranoia led to the murder of male children two years and younger. This is referred to as the massacre of the innocents. He was just under six miles from where Christ was born, and he wouldn’t search for him to worship him. The wise men came from a distance that took them a significant period to travel, and they continued searching for Jesus. Sometimes those closest to Jesus are farthest from him. Jeremiah initially meant the weeping of Rachel to relate to a period of captivity in Babylon and the murder of children during the invasion of Judea. All mothers were portrayed as Rachel, weeping for their sons being killed and led into captivity. Herod is acting as Pharaoh did—killing all male children.

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