Bible Study: Advent 2
Text: Luke 3:1-6 (7-18)
The Gospel of Luke opens with an extended narrative of the births of
both John the Baptist and Jesus. The narrative style, the structure of the
first two chapters, the use of Old Testament quotations, as well as the
flow of thought all serve to connect Luke’s Gospel with God’s work in the
Old Testament. It is obvious that Luke is relating the story of Jesus as a
continuation, even as a climax, to the "salvation history" of the Old
Testament. Luke sees the Incarnation as another revelatory act of God in
human history in which He reveals Himself as a God of grace and
Many Lectionary Readings for Advent continue this theme both in
relating John the Baptist to Jesus, but also in linking both by various
images and themes to the work of God in the Old Testament and to several
major theological themes that track though this passage into the larger
Observations from the Text
1. The introduction to this section (vv. 1-2)
recounts in unusual detail the historical setting of the Gospel story
within the framework of world history.
Significance: In firmly anchoring the
Gospel story in history, Luke prevents this event from being mythicized
into some cosmic drama or of degenerating into sentimentality. The impact
of the events that are unfolding in the story are very this-worldly, in
the real life flow of human history. It is that "this-worldly" dimension
of the Incarnation to which Luke will return as He tells the Gospel story
in terms of the difference the coming of Jesus makes in how we see our
world, and how we respond to it.
There is also the overtone in this introduction of the political forces
of the world that seem to overshadow the story. There is great contrast
between the power of the Roman leaders portrayed here and the
vulnerability of the eccentric wilderness prophet, the teenager from
Galilee, and the child born in a stable and paid homage by shepherds. Yet,
there is a clear affirmation early in the book that earthly powers and
rulers do not have the last word (1:51-55). There is also likely intended
here some connection with the book of Acts as the early church leaders
repeatedly are called to judgment before the political and religious
leaders of the world, without knowing that they are being judged rather
than sitting in judgment.
2. As is typical for the early chapters of Luke,
the OT provides the background for the development of the story.
Significance: There are several
theological themes drawn from the OT that carry the weight of
communication here. Verses 1-6 revolve around the quotation of Isaiah
40:3-5. It is obvious that the Gospel tradition is re-interpreting the
Isaiah passage to apply to John the Baptist, especially in the use of
"desert" and "prepare."
Rather than reading with Isaiah: "A voice cries, ‘In the desert
prepare. . .’", the Gospels read: "A voice cries in the desert, ‘Prepare.
. .’". By adapting this quotation in this way, the Gospel traditions bring
attention to the desert as the arena of John’s ministry. But the "desert"
is much more than just the location of John’s public ministry. It takes on
larger significance as a theological metaphor. While the "desert"
could be a negative symbol for devastation and destruction, prophetic
traditions often recalled the desert as the place where Israel first
encountered God and faithfully responded to Him (Hos 2:14; Jer 2:2-3).
This new voice, crying out in the desert, is a call to Israel to return to
the desert, to return to faithfulness, to respond to God’s grace as they
had long ago in another desert.
The original context of the Isaiah passage was amid the hopes and
expectations of a return from exile in Babylon. This quote makes an
important theological link with the future expectations that had been
associated with the return from Exile. At that time they envisioned a new
Kingdom where God would elevate Israel to its proper place among the
nations, where she could fulfill her calling as the people of God and be a
source of light to the world. Luke’s use here implies a similar action of
God to fulfill those hopes in Jesus.
Also, in the second line of the quote, Luke changes the Isaiah reading,
"make straight in the desert a path for our God," to "make his paths
straight." Luke clearly wants us to see John’s preaching and the coming of
Jesus as closely related, as he has already done in the earlier infancy
narratives. With John and Jesus "related", and tied to the "voice" of
Isaiah and the Coming of God in salvation and deliverance to His people,
Luke clearly establishes the expectation of a significant impending work
of God in history. It both recalls and anticipates the
transformative nature of the actions of God in the world, both
historically and spiritually in the life of the community of Faith.
3. There is a clear note of threat in his
preaching that unfolds from the call to repentance.
Significance: The background of John’s
call to repentance is also from the Old Testament. The primary Old
Testament term for "sin" means "to walk on the wrong path" or "to walk in
the wrong direction." The term usually translated "repent" (Heb: shub),
means "to turn around" or "to change direction." The implication is that
the people are going the wrong way, that they are not following the
correct paths. Perhaps that is why they need a new "highway" built by God
Other writers in the New Testament use the metaphor of "walking" to
refer to the manner in which a person lives life (e.g.
Phil 1:27). "Repent," in this context in the mouth of John, then, does not
mean to go through any legal or ritual process, even of baptism, but is a
call to a certain kind of lifestyle that puts into practice in day to day
living the grace of God. That not only is the fundamental idea of Torah in
the Old Testament, but also reflects both the teachings of Jesus and Paul.
The repentance for which John calls is not just a ritual action or a
legal transaction that could be carried out at the temple in Jerusalem or
even in the Jordan River. He is calling for a return to covenant
faithfulness that will be lived out in the reality of the world, as he
goes on to specify in following verses. He is calling for a different way
of being religious, a way of living out covenant relationship that goes
beyond dreams of glory, expectations of privilege, or legal obedience.
That new way works out in the concrete realities of sharing coats and
food, of dealing fairly and honestly, of respecting others (10-14).
It also gives a clear context for the overarching resonance of threat
and judgment with its corresponding call to faithful response that echoes
through John’s preaching. That helps to establish the twin Advent themes
of hope and judgment that had long been a part of prophetic expectation (e.g.,
Amos 5-6), and will sound again in the teachings of Jesus.
4. The newness of this action is underscored by
the radical dimensions of the unfolding of this work of God.
Significance: Mountains will be moved!
Valleys will be filled in! The scope of this may be diminished in our day
of multilane superhighways cutting across the mountains. But the physical
possibility of this happening is not really the point. The images here are
intended to portray an action of God on a grand, unprecedented scale. God
will remove every obstacle that will hinder the coming of the Lord! It is
not that the people have to undertake the task of leveling the mountains.
That is God’s work. Repentance is the preparatory work of the people, so
they will be in a position to recognize the work of God in the world. Note
Luke’s comment in 19:41-44:
As he came near and saw the city, he
wept over it, saying, "If you, even you, had only recognized on this
day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your
eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set
up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side.
They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you,
and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you
did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.
5. The conclusion of the Isaiah quotation places
the coming of Jesus in a global context.
Significance: Just as Simeon had
proclaimed as he held the infant Jesus, this new action of God in the
world, this new path that God is building for the reconciliation of
humanity to Himself, is for all people. That is significant here when we
consider that the Book of Luke is structured as a journey, as Jesus
travels from Galilee to Jerusalem. But it will not end there. Others will
continue that journey in the book of Acts from Jerusalem to Rome, and to
the whole world. We will continue that journey. In fact, we
are still on the journey as we still prepare for a Second Advent.
from the Text
1. How can we hear this story as something more than just the
recounting of historical events that happened 2,000 years ago? Or should
we? Is retelling the story at Christmas enough?
2. Why does Luke provide all the historical detail of rulers and
governors, yet gives us so few historical detail about other things, like
what Jesus looked like?
3. Why does the Gospel story of "Good News," love, and peace on earth,
begin with such a negative aspect as a call to repentance and a warning
about judgment (3:7-9)?
4. Why would the people respond to John’s message with such expectation
that he might be the Messiah (3:15)? If they were so looking for a
Messiah, why was John’s message of preparation even necessary?
5. Given our popular views of prophecy as "prewritten history," why did
Luke think it necessary or helpful to change the passage in Isaiah in
order to make it apply to John and Jesus? What does that do to our view of
Scripture? Or are there other ways of understanding Scripture and
6. What exactly is it that John wants the people to do to repent? Is it
the Baptism? How does John’s response in the following verses (3:11-14) to
the people’s question of "What then should we do?" relate to his call to
repentance and the fact that he was baptizing people ("a baptism of
repentance for the forgiveness of sins," 3:3).
7. What difference can this passage possible make in our lives in the
21st century after Jesus as we go out into the routine of
Monday morning? Does it really need to make any difference?