COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LUKE
by Stergios N. Sakkos, University Professor
Luke, like the other three evangelists (see Mt 3:1-12; Mk 1:1-8; Jn 1:19-34), first narrates the appearance and work of John the Forerunner and Baptist and then the Lord's public ministry. John the Baptist stands at the border between the prophets and the apostles; he not only prophesied of the Messiah, but also showed him to his disciples (see Jn 1:29).
3,1. Ἐν ἔτει δὲ πεντεκαιδεκάτῳ τῆς ἡγεμονίας Τιβερίου Καίσαρος, ἡγεμονεύοντος Ποντίου Πιλάτου τῆς Ἰουδαίας, καὶ τετραρχοῦντος τῆς Γαλιλαίας Ἡρῴδου, Φιλίππου δὲ τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ αὐτοῦ τετραρχοῦντος τῆς Ἰτουραίας καὶ Τραχωνίτιδος χώρας, καὶ Λυσανίου τῆς Ἀβιληνῆς τετραρχοῦντος.
3:1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene.
John's presence on the historical scene and the beginning of Jesus' public ministry are stipulated chronologically by political and religious rulers at the time (see comments on 1:5).
Tiberius Caesar (Tiberius Claudius Nero) was the stepson and successor of Octavian Augustus (see Lk 2:1). In the fifteenth year of Tiberius' reign (14-37 AD), John and Jesus were about thirty years old (see v. 23).
After the death of Herod I, the slayer of the infants of Bethlehem, his kingdom was divided among his sons. They acquired the title of tetrarch; the people, of course, called them "kings". At first Archelaus reigned in Judea, Samaria and Idumea. But he was deposed by the emperor because of his cruelty (see comments on 2:42). The areas under his jurisdiction were annexed to the province of Syria. From then on, Judea was ruled by Roman commissioners, who were based in Caesarea of Palestine. The fifth commissioner of Judea after the deposition of Archelaus (6 A.D.) was Pontius Pilate. His name Pontius indicates his origin from Pontus, while the name Pilate, according to one interpretation, is due to his habit of always carrying his spear, which in Latin is called “pilum”.
Herod Antipas was the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, the one who beheaded John the Baptist (see Mt 14:1-12; Mk 6:14-29; Lk 9:7-9). We will see about his relationship with Jesus within the passages of the Gospel (see comments on Lk 13:32; 23:6-12).
Philip, Herod Antipas' brother, was the tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis, areas east of Lake Gennesaret, at a considerable distance from it, towards the Syrian desert. Herod Antipas, had an illicit relationship with Philip's wife Herodias. He was strictly rebuked by John the Baptist and this was the cause of John's imprisonment (Mt 14:3; Mk 6:17).
The existence of the tetrarch Lysanias was questioned-challenged. Luke was accused of moving some years later Lysanias, the king of Ituraea, who was killed by Antony in 34 B.C. However, inscriptions and coins that were found in excavations of that area support the information of the evangelist Luke. The area administered by Lysanias, Abilene, stretched between Damascus and the Ptolemaic Heliopolis.
3,2. ἐπ᾿ ἀρχιερέως Ἄννα καὶ Καϊάφα, ἐγένετο ῥῆμα Θεοῦ ἐπὶ Ἰωάννην τὸν Ζαχαρίου υἱὸν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ.
3:2 Annas and Caiaphas being the high priest, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.
The use of the singular “the high priest”, although followed by two names, Anna and Caiaphas, is not a grammatical error. In 15 A.D. the Romans deposed Anna, the legal, according to the Mosaic law, lifelong-high priest since 6 A.D., and in his place they successively appointed his four sons and finally his son-in-law Caiaphas. In Jesus’ time, Caiaphas was officially recognized as the high priest by the Romans, while Annas remained the real and acceptable high priest by the Jews. In every religious matter, Annas decided first, so as to satisfy the people’s conscience and then Caiaphas repeated the decision "in the eyes of the Romans" (see Jn 18:13; Acts 4:6).
“The word of God came” means that God’s command came to John to undertake his mission by an angel or by a vision or in some other way that is not specified. He was "a man sent by God", as the evangelist John notes (Jn 1:6; cf. 1:33), that is why he did not begin his work "of his own accord", "but being moved by the divine Spirit".
The expression "the word of God came" is found only here in the New Testament. It is reminiscent of the equivalent phrase "the word of the Lord was spoken", which is used very often in the Old Testament for the calling of the prophets by God (see Hos 1:1; Mic1:1; Joel 1:1; Jon 1:1; Zeph 1:1; Hag 1:1.3; Zech 1:1; Jer 1:1.2; Ezek 1:2) and it shows Luke’s familiarity with the text of the Old Testament and in particular with its Greek translation by the O' (Seventy).
John received God's message “in the wilderness”, where, according to the evangelist Luke, he had withdrawn himself "until the day of his revelation to Israel" (1:80). God, who brought him into the world by a miracle, then led him into the wilderness to prepare for his great mission. It is a characteristic of great men to isolate themselves for a period of preparation before beginning their public operation.
In the wilderness John lived as an ascetic. He did not consume alcoholic beverages (see Lk 1:15), he did not want to live with the comforts people have. He wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist. His food was "locusts and wild honey" (Mt 3:4; cf. Mk 1:6).
3,3. καὶ ἦλθεν εἰς πᾶσαν τὴν περίχωρον τοῦ Ἰορδάνου κηρύσσων βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν.
3:3 and he went into all the region along the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
When John received God's command, he left his isolation and “went into every region along the Jordan”, throughout the whole bank of the Jordan River (cf. Jn 1:28; 3:23; 10:40), where he preached and baptized the people.
The Jordan river descends from Lake Gennesaret and flows through all the districts of the country, namely Galilee, Samaria, Judea and Perea. John stayed near the river, because his main mission was to baptize the Jews who would receive his preaching. He went along the whole of the riverside area of Palestine, so that those who wished could approach him. The place where John baptized is not exactly specified. Combining the testimonies of all the evangelists, we guess that this was done "in the wilderness" (Mt 3:1), in the uninhabited region of Judea, but also in all of Palestine; on both banks of the river, on the left side and "beyond the Jordan" (Jn 1:28), obviously in places where the riverbed was suitable for baptisms. Such places are numerous along the river, from the Sea of Galilee to Judea, where the Jordan flows into the Dead Sea. Even today, at a distance of about 40 kilometers from Jerusalem, near Jericho, where the Holy Monastery of St. Gerasimus of Jordan is located, many pilgrims are baptized in the Jordan River. In that area, but also further north, near Beisan (Scythopolis), where " Aenon near to Salim" must have been located, John baptized "because there was much water there" (Jn 3:22-23). His presence in the northern region of Palestine, in Galilee, is also attested by the fact that he was arrested there by Herod Antipas, king of Galilee.
The Baptist did not go to the cities, but his fame reached there. His ascetic figure, his powerful preaching and his holy life attracted many crowds from all places, even from the capital (see Mt 3:5; Mk 1:5; Jn 1:19). His great mission was also obvious by his whole appearance; that was a call to repentance, too. The news spread throughout the whole country that in the wilderness of Judea lived an ascetic whose language reminded of the great prophets and whose life shone like a burning torch in the thick moral darkness. After all, five centuries had already passed since the time of Malachi, and in all that time no prophet had appeared in Israel. Therefore, the crowds gathered to see and hear John eagerly. Moreover, he was quite different from all the false messiahs of that day. They, taking advantage of the people's false and deceptive perceptions of the Messiah, gathered armed followers and promised salvation from the oppression of the Roman yoke. None of them were interested in the moral progress of his followers. John appeared unarmed and weak, without claiming to be the Messiah. His words like a hammer shattered petrified hearts and like a scalpel pierced the most intimate thoughts, in order to create thoughts leading to repentance. It was precisely this true and different element that the people discerned and ran to him.
The baptism which John instituted was not included in the regulations of the Mosaic legislation. The law prescribed that the objects and the Jews themselves should be washed whenever they came into contact with the Gentiles or for any other reason they were offended by legal impurity (see Lev ch. 11;15). John's baptism was a “baptism of repentance”, that is, it expressed repentance and the desire for a pure life. It was not concerned with the confined legal impurity, but with the whole moral uncleanness; it revealed the inadequacy of legal purification and the need for complete renewal. It did not, however, ensure the forgiveness of sins and spiritual rebirth; “this is the gift of the baptism given afterwards”, St Chrysostom states categorically. Those who repented sought redemption and being humbled they felt the desire for the forgiveness of their sins; this is the meaning of the expression “for the forgiveness of sins”. John's baptism was a prophetic sign, a symbol that included all the previous and prepared for the reality that the Messiah would inaugurate. Before Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, redemption could not be assured; "the blood of His son, Jesus Christ, cleanses us from all sin" (1 Jn 1:7). John's aim was to bring the Jews to self-consciousness, to lead them to an awareness of their sins. “This was the appearance of this man, a man of repentance and confession”, observes St Chrysostom. The Baptist seemed to preach as follows: “It is not the objects that defile a man. You are defiled by the impurity of sin. Come to me in repentance and I will immerse you in the water." That is why, while the Jews stood in the water, immersed up to their necks, they confessed their sins and then dipped their heads in the water.
The awareness of sinfulness and the realization of inadequacy are the basic prerequisites for a person to accept God’s presence in his life. The better he knows himself and realizes his weaknesses, the more intensely he seeks God as a redeemer. This is why the Lord proclaims: "For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Mt 9:13). The pharisees who "justify themselves" (Lk 16:15) did not feel the need to repent. The tax collectors and prostitutes especially approached John the Baptist, as the Lord emphasized; “Verily I assure you, that the tax collectors and the harlots shall go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and you, when you had seen it, did not repent afterwards, that you might believe him” (Mt 21:31-32). It is indeed an acceptable truth that "those who do not want to repent cannot believe". On the contrary, the deeper the repentance is, the more faith and love are rekindled for the Lord.
3,4-6. ὡς γέγραπται ἐν βίβλῳ λόγων Ἠσαΐου τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος· φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν Κυρίου, εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ· πᾶσα φάραγξ πληρωθήσεται καὶ πᾶν ὄρος καὶ βουνὸς ταπεινωθήσεται, καὶ ἔσται τὰ σκολιὰ εἰς εὐθεῖαν καὶ αἱ τραχεῖαι εἰς ὁδοὺς λείας, καὶ ὄψεται πᾶσα σὰρξ τὸ σωτήριον τοῦ Θεοῦ.
3:4-6 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, saying "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 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; and all mankind shall see the salvation of God."
John is the prophet who was prophesied. Two prophets, Isaiah and Malachi, spoke of his person, his mission and the content of his preaching. In the Gospel according to Mark prophecies of both of them are mentioned; "Behold, I send my angel before you, who will prepare your way in front of you" (Mk 1:2; cf. Mal 3:1) and "the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths" (Mk 1:3; cf. Is 40:3). The other three evangelists (see Mt 3:3; Lk 3:4; Jn 1:23) mention only the prophecy contained “of the words of Isaiah”.
In the first place this prophecy of Isaiah was addressed to the people of Israel, who after centuries would be captive in Babylon. The prophet, seeing prophetically the people’s return to their homeland, said to the captives to prepare the way in order to hasten their return. But the same prophecy also has its messianic dimension. John the Baptist used it to answer the Pharisees' messengers coming from Jerusalem when they asked him, "What do you say of him?" (Jn 1:22). He was conscious that he was a voice crying out loud in the wilderness, a voice in the desert. St. Cyril of Alexandria analyzes this voice in brief commands; "Be prepared to obey to what Christ will give as a law; withdraw your hearts from the shadow of the law; put an end to the typical religiosity; get rid of your perverse way of thinking."
The voice of the wilderness, John’s voice, was calling the Jews to prepare the Lord’s way; that is, to prepare themselves inwardly. More specifically, they were to make “the paths straight”, to make the paths straight and smooth, setting aside the obstacles raised by formal adherence to the law and the tyranny of the passions, so that their hearts might be made receptive to the Messiah’s preaching. These words recall Joshua’s command: "Set your hearts straight towards the Lord God of Israel" (Josh 24:23).
The gorges, mountains and hills represent, according to the interpreters, the various and multiple forms of sin which hinder the coming of salvation. The coarse and prone to wickedness people are symbolized by the steep gorges, while the hard and unfruitful in virtue are represented by the mountains and the hills. The hymn writers of our Church, interpreting in their own poetic way, consider the poor human nature to be a gorge, which through the incarnation of the Word will be filled, completed with the divine nature and elevated. Similarly, they say, the mountains and the hills are "the death bringing pride" which will be diminished and humbled by losing its dominating hold over the human race. Through the power of repentance, which will be preached by the Baptist, all obstacles will be removed, so that the way will be straight and smooth, “the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth”, for the coming Saviour.
It is characteristic that only Luke of the synoptic evangelists adds here Isaiah’s prophetic word that “all mankind shall see the salvation of God" (40:5), not only the Jews. For the Gentile Christians, to whom the Gospel according to Luke is addressed, this truth was especially important. The whole human race will see God's salvation, the Saviour, the Son of God who is coming to give salvation (see comments on 2:30).
3,7. ῎Ελεγεν οὖν τοῖς ἐκπορευομένοις ὄχλοις βαπτισθῆναι ὑπ᾿ αὐτοῦ· γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν, τίς ὑπέδειξεν ὑμῖν φυγεῖν ἀπὸ τῆς μελλούσης ὀργῆς;
3:7 He said therefore to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
The holy prophet and ascetic John was also a teacher, a champion preacher of God’s truth. His teaching, completely free of nationalistic ideals, was simple, brief and practical. As a spiritual doctor, he gave to each one the prescription he needed. He gave to each group: the sinful tax collectors, the hypocritical scribes and pharisees and the Sadducees, the exploiters of the people’s piety, a different one. But to all of them he preached the sermon of repentance with a prophetic power (cf. Mt 3:1-2. 7-12; cf. Lk 3:7-14).
Luke compared to the other evangelists records more details of the Baptist's teaching and as he informs us here, John also criticized both the crowds with courage and the religious and political leadership (see Mt 3:7; 14:4). John did not flatter the great and powerful, nor did he hesitate to criticize most of them. His criticism was especially acute for those who approached him without a repentant disposition. With the illumination of the Holy Spirit, who filled his existence from his mother's womb according to the prophecy of the angel Gabriel (cf. Lk 1:15), John could read in men’s hearts the motives of their actions. Many went to the Jordan only out of curiosity and others out of purpose, to win the pious people’s favour. Still others came to be baptized because they feared that some harm would come upon them, entirely typically, without any desire to change and correct themselves. The hypocrisy of all these was stamped out by John. He called them the offspring of vipers, that is, vipers, to emphasize that their cunning and wickedness resembled that of the devil, who appeared in heaven as a serpent (see Gen 3:1f). As the serpents flee away from the fire, so they could not withstand the Baptist's criticism and were driven away.
If there is no sincere repentance, John emphasized, there is no other way in which “the wrath to come” can be overcome. By this term the eternal hell is emphasized to which the unrepentant will end up. In reality, of course, God neither gets angry nor does he punish. Man, through his sin and apostasy, is removed from the sphere of divine love and feels God's wrath against him. Just as he who punches on nails is wounded and he who stones the sun receives the stones as they return with a rush, so he who sins pays the price of his rebellion. This means that the "wrath of God" is an anthropomorphic expression which projects the subjective state of the wicked and impious man onto God’s holy and perfect person.
3,8. Ποιήσατε οὖν καρποὺς ἀξίους τῆς μετανοίας, καὶ μὴ ἄρξησθε λέγειν ἐν ἑαυτοῖς, πατέρα ἔχομεν τὸν Ἀβραάμ· λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν ὅτι δύναται ὁ Θεὸς ἐκ τῶν λίθων τούτων ἐγεῖραι τέκνα τῷ Ἀβραάμ.
3:8 Therefore bring forth fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
True repentance is seen in the change of life. A change of mind must be accompanied by a change of conduct. I repent essentially when I give up the life that serves my wickedness and weaknesses, and strive to make my works pleasing to God. This is why John preached, "bring forth fruits that befit repentance”. Repentance is judged by its fruitfulness, by the godly works of piety, love and purity. The New Testament mentions examples of practical repentance - Matthew the tax collector (see Lk 5:27-28; Mt 9:9; Mk 2:14), the prostitute (see Lk 7:37-50), Zacchaeus the chief tax collector (see Lk 19:1-10), the Samaritan woman (see Jn 4:7-42), the criminal robber (see Lk 23:40-43), Saul the persecutor (see Acts 9:1-30).
John the Baptist proclaimed a hard truth for the Jews; “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham”. God can bring forth Abraham's children even from the stones, as he allowed Isaac to be born from the dead and infertile as a stone Sarah’s womb. He had no need of the Jews to carry out his plan. He could raise the people who would glorify his name from the most unlikely and unsuitable human earthlings. Indeed from the heathen, whom the Jews esteemed no more highly than stones -they called them unclean swine and dirty dogs- the genuine children of Abraham came from.
The pseudo-piοus Jews thought that they were assured of God's favour because they were Abraham’s descendants. Their lineage was their greatest boast which, however, proved to be vain and futile. As Abraham’s children they should have had the faith, obedience and works of their ancestor. This is what the Lord Himself emphasized to them in the amazing dialogue preserved by John the evangelist; “If you were Abraham's children, you would do the works of Abraham” (Jn 8:39). The same theme is developed at length by the apostle Paul in the fourth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans and in the third chapter to Galatians. Interpreting the apostolic teaching, St Chrysostom addressed those who boasted about their glorious ancestors and warned them: "Have you a great ancestor? If you are like him, you will gain. But if you do nothing to be worthy of him, he himself will become a critic for you instead of praiser, because from such a worthy root you have grown a bitter fruit."
People who have a relationship with God run the following grave danger; if they do not pay attention in the course of their lives and do not show diligence in their spiritual progress, they lose everything essential and retain only an outer cloak of typical religiosity, which even grows in them a sense of self-sufficiency and arrogance. They deceive their consciences by invoking their relationship with revered persons and sacred things, and are not interested in their personal conscious relationship with God himself, nor in whether their life is consistent with his commandments.
3,9. ῎Ηδη δὲ καὶ ἡ ἀξίνη πρὸς τὴν ῥίζαν τῶν δένδρων κεῖται· πᾶν οὖν δένδρον μὴ ποιοῦν καρπὸν καλὸν ἐκκόπτεται καὶ εἰς πῦρ βάλλεται.
3:9 Already now the axe is lying to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
The “ἀξίνη” is the axe. Every tree that doesn't bear fruit is cut down and burned. The coming Messiah and his word is the axe that draws near to cut down the unrepentant Jews like fruitless trees. It is an inevitable and imminent judgment. John warns of this judgment, but also points out the way of salvation, true repentance.
3,10. Καὶ ἐπηρώτων αὐτὸν οἱ ὄχλοι λέγοντες· τί οὖν ποιήσομεν;
3:10 And the crowds asked him, saying, “What shall we do then”?
Next, the Gospel narrative presents certain categories of people who approached John and asked him, "What shall we do?
All men at heart desire salvation; the corruption of sin covers this desire. But when the soul realizes its great need, it spontaneously asks to know what it should do to be saved (cf. Acts 2:37; 16:30). The first manifestation of a humbled heart and a soul who repents is the attempt to make amends.
3,11. Ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ λέγει αὐτοῖς· ὁ ἔχων δύο χιτῶνας μεταδότω τῷ μὴ ἔχοντι, καὶ ὁ ἔχων βρώματα ὁμοίως ποιείτω.
3:11 And he answered them, "He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise."
John answers the people's question by recommending as fruits of repentance the works of compassion and love. The mark of genuine repentance is the practical manifestation of love. The prophet Daniel had given the following advice to King Nebuchadnezzar - "redeem your sins in alms and your iniquities in mercy to the poor " 4:27 (4:24). At his Second Coming the Lord will judge the world on the basis of faith in his person and the practice of practical love (see Mt 25:31-46).
John the Baptist, wanting to teach participation in the needs of the poor brethren, refers to two elements essential for man's survival, food and clothing (cf. 1 Tit 6:8). Even today, despite the abundance of good things, many are deprived of necessities and suffer. The Gospel's preaching of practical love and charity (see Mt 5:7; Acts 20:35; Jas 2:16; 1 Jn 3:18) has never ceased to be relevant.
3,12-13. Ἦλθον δὲ καὶ τελῶναι βαπτισθῆναι, καὶ εἶπον πρὸς αὐτόν· διδάσκαλε, τί ποιήσομεν; Ὁ δὲ εἶπε πρὸς αὐτούς· μηδὲν πλέον παρὰ τὸ διατεταγμένον ὑμῖν πράσσετε.
3:12-13 Then came also tax collectors to be baptized, and said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “exact no more than that which is appointed you”.
In ancient times “τελῶναι” (customs officials) were called the tax collectors. But they were very different from those of today. They were not civil servants but private individuals who bought taxes from the state and then collected them from the citizens on their own account. In the Roman Empire, which included Palestine in Christ’s time, tax collectors were organized into companies. Especially in Judea, it was a law that tax companies, consisting only of Jews, were to collect taxes.
The taxation was done as follows: The state estimated that from the region of Judea it had to collect taxes of, for example, a million. It would therefore organize an auction starting from this amount. The directors of the big tax companies, who were Roman citizens, each wanting to collect the taxes for his company, raised the amount, which could reach two or three million. The one who gave the most bought the taxes for his company and paid the amount in advance to the state. He then resold the taxes to other smaller companies and they in turn to other even smaller companies. The resale was always done by auction and as a result, the amount of money raised was enormous. Whereas, for example, the individual tax set by the state was 10 % of each citizen's income, the successive auctions raised it to 30-40 %. And when the harvest happened to be less than the state had calculated, the people were forced to pay all of it in taxes, so that they suffered from hunger.
The tax collectors were cruel and inhuman in the collection of taxes, real beasts who sucked the blood of the people. The philosopher Theocritus from Chios when asked which were the fiercest beasts, replied: “In the mountains the bears, in the cities the tax collectors”. The historian Philo the Judean, contemporary of the apostles, recounts that in his days the tax collectors who, when collecting the head tax, found some of the taxpayers dead, dug them out of the grave and flogged them in public. When fellow citizens asked them why they abused the lifeless bodies, since they were unable to meet their demand, the tax collectors replied that they did so in order to force the deads’ relatives to pay the tax themselves.
The Jews of course, hated the tax collectors. They considered them traitors, because they collaborated with the conquerors and dirty, because they consorted with unclean Gentiles. The profession of a tax collector was described as dishonourable and shameful. That is why the rabbis did not allow their disciples to have anything to do with them.
Among the tax collectors, however, there were souls who kept deep within them the anxiety for salvation. They were going to be baptized in the Jordan in true repentance. Their question “what shall we do?” expressed their sincere desire to change course. And John recommended that they should not receive more than what the law required. This command is valid in every age for all professions. The believer ought to be content with the lawful reward in every work and not to seek unjust gain.
3,14. Ἐπηρώτων δὲ αὐτὸν καὶ στρατευόμενοι λέγοντες· καὶ ἡμεῖς τί ποιήσομεν; Καὶ εἶπε πρὸς αὐτούς· μηδένα συκοφαντήσητε μηδὲ διασείσητε, καὶ ἀρκεῖσθε τοῖς ὀψωνίοις ὑμῶν.
3:14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Rob no one by violence or threatening for non-existent laws, and be content with your wages."
The “soldiers” were Roman or Hebrew citizens, who served in the army of Herod Antipas the tetrarch.
The verb “συκοφαντήσητε” here, as in Lk 19:8, does not have the usual meaning of 'slander'. It means "to collect from someone a certain amount of money as a tax by threatening and invoking non-existent laws." This was exactly what the soldiers to whom John was addressing did. The Roman law defined the temporary tax of "παραχειμασίας”. It was paid to the soldiers themselves by the inhabitants of the districts in which a military unit of the conquerors happened to be stationed. Usually, the soldiers collected the tax in a cruel and predatory manner. While the tax of "παραχειμασίας” was only valid for wartime, the soldiers continued to demand it from the citizens even in peacetime in the same inhumane way, claiming that they were carrying out orders from their superiors. That is why when they asked “what shall we do?”, John advised them not to be unjust by taking taxes illegally and violently, but to be content with the salary they received from the state.
The verb “διασείω” in its literal meaning is used in the work of an arborist, a person who takes care of trees. In order to gather the last fruits of a tree, which are left on the tops, he takes the branch and shakes it with force, so that the fruits fall. In economic phraseology the verb is used metaphorically. "Διασείω” means to "rob someone by violence", to take away his last savings by force.
3,15-16. Προσδοκῶντος δὲ τοῦ λαοῦ καὶ διαλογιζομένων πάντων ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις αὐτῶν περὶ τοῦ Ἰωάννου, μήποτε αὐτὸς εἴη ὁ Χριστός, ἀπεκρίνατο ὁ Ἰωάννης ἅπασι λέγων· ἐγὼ μὲν ὕδατι βαπτίζω ὑμᾶς· ἔρχεται δὲ ὁ ἰσχυρότερός μου, οὗ οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανὸς λῦσαι τὸν ἱμάντα τῶν ὑποδημάτων αὐτοῦ· αὐτὸς ὑμᾶς βαπτίσει ἐν Πνεύματι Ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρί.
3:15-16 As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, John answered them all, "I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the lace of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire.
John's personality, his holy and ascetic life and his powerful preaching made the people wonder if he was the Messiah. However, according to the prophecies, the Messiah would come from Judah’s tribe, while John belonged to Levi’s tribe.
John did not take advantage of the people’s enthusiasm and confidence to push himself forward. He emphasized, “but he who is mightier than I is coming”. He is "the one who comes from heaven" (Jn 3:31). The Baptist humbly and clearly declared, “I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him.” (Jn 3:28). He called himself "the friend of the bridegroom" (Jn 3:29), who joyfully proclaimed the coming of the bridegroom-Messiah. That is why, when John's disciples expressed their dissatisfaction with Jesus’ ministry (see Jn 3:26), they received from their teacher the answer; “he must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).
There was a rabbinic saying according to which the disciples of a rabbi were to render him every service, even the most humiliating of services, except only to tie and untie the laces of his shoes, for this was considered extremely humiliating. John, in order to emphasize how superior the Messiah was to him - apparently making an allusion to that saying - said that not only did he owe him even this, but that he was unworthy to do it, “the laces of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie”. The evangelist Matthew, of course, notes John's word somewhat differently; “whose shoes I am not worthy to hold” (3:11). Obviously, the Baptist used both examples in his preaching, sometimes one and sometimes the other.
John also explained that his baptism was not the one that offered salvation, but it was a symbolic baptism in water. He was preparing for the Messiah’s perfect and effective baptism (see comments on 3:3), which would be “in the Holy Spirit and fire”. A metallic object is cleansed with water only externally, while fire penetrates into it and melts it, so that it can be cleansed of all impurities and take on a new form and shape. Similarly, the Messiah’s baptism would deeply purify man and transform him, as the Holy Spirit like fire would penetrate his entire existence. The Holy Spirit’s descent on the day of Pentecost was manifested in tongues of fire (see Acts 2:3-4) fulfilling John's prophecy and transforming the fearful disciples into fiery preachers of the Resurrection.
3,17. Οὗ τὸ πτύον ἐν τῇ χειρὶ αὐτοῦ καὶ διακαθαριεῖ τὴν ἅλωνα αὐτοῦ, καὶ συνάξει τὸν σῖτον εἰς τὴν ἀποθήκην αὐτοῦ, τὸ δὲ ἄχυρον κατακαύσει πυρὶ ἀσβέστῳ.
3:17 His winnowing-shovel is in his hand to clear out his threshing-floor, and to gather the wheat into his storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up in fire unquenchable."
The prophets foretold that the Messiah would perform a work of judgment (Mal 3:2; Is 63:4). The old man Simeon, likewise, who had the honour to hold the divine infant in his arms prophesied, “behold, this child is set for the fall and uprising of many in Israel” (Lk 2:34). The Baptist repeated the same prophecy, using the image of the threshing floor, as it was done at that time. The thresher with the spade, the threshing shovel, shook the threshed grain into the air, threshing it, separating the wheat from the chaff. So will the Messiah come as a judge and separate the believers from the nonbelievers. The “storehouse” symbolizes the eternal kingdom, where the Lord will gather his own after the final judgment. The nonbelievers will be punished “in fire unquenchable”, which represents the unending hell (see Mt 5:22; 13:40; 42:50; 18:8. 9; 25:41. 46; Mk 9:43-48).
This possessive adjective “his”, which is repeated three times, identifies the Messiah with Yahweh, who according to the Old Testament is the only absolute judge and ruler.
3,18. Πολλὰ μὲν οὖν καὶ ἕτερα παρακαλῶν εὐηγγελίζετο τὸν λαόν.
3:18 So, with many other exhortations, he declared the good news to the people.
After the exemplary exposition of the Baptist’s teaching and work, the content of his sermon is mentioned generally and briefly. John “παρακαλῶν” (advising), edifying and preparing the people, “declared the good news”, proclaiming the happy message of the Messiah’s coming, of the fulfillment of God's promises.
3,19-20. Ὁ δὲ Ἡρῴδης ὁ τετράρχης, ἐλεγχόμενος ὑπ᾿ αὐτοῦ περὶ Ἡρῳδιάδος τῆς γυναικὸς τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ αὐτοῦ καὶ περὶ πάντων ὧν ἐποίησε πονηρῶν ὁ Ἡρῴδης, προσέθηκε καὶ τοῦτο ἐπὶ πᾶσι καὶ κατέκλεισε τὸν Ἰωάννην ἐν τῇ φυλακῇ.
3:19-20 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been rebuked by him for Herodias, his brother's wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he shut up John in prison.
The evangelist Luke, wishing to complete what concerns the Baptist, mentions at this point the event of his imprisonment, which will certainly take place later, after the baptism of Jesus, which is described below (see v. 21-22).
As a genuine preacher of God's truth, John did not hesitate to address his disapproval also to Herod Antipas. The tetrarch of Galilee was publicly committing the sin of adultery with Herodias, wife of his brother Philip. Herod, in spite of the severe criticism he received, did not dare to harm John, because he was a religiously-obsessed man; the association of corruption with religion-obsession is an ancient one. Besides, he did not want to displease the people, who honoured John as a prophet (see Mt 14:5). He did, however, order his arrest and “he locked up John in prison”. Later, on his birthday, drunk as he was, he made an oath to give Salome, the daughter of Herodias, whatever she asked for her dance in front of his guests. Salome, following her mother's advice, asked for and received " John the Baptist’s head on a platter" (Mt 14,8).