Luke 3:1 “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.”
What would you think of the God who created the world, and also made us in his image, and then, as the millennia went by, that he should refuse to say another word to us? Not a single peep. Think of it, the God whose mighty power and glories were plainly seen everywhere in the creation, whose moral perfection was evidenced in his voice in our consciences – that distinctive divine monitor which every single person possesses, rebuking us when we do evil and commending us when we do what is right – and yet this living holy God never said anything more to his world. He may as well have gone off busying himself in another universe an infinite distance from ourselves for all the attention he paid to this amazing creation. He is totally ignoring the world he made. What sort of deity would you think him to be? Would a loving God estrange himself from us like that – giving us life and then abandoning us? Let me use this comparison; imagine your parents conceiving you, giving you birth, providing a home for you, spreading food on the table and clothing you, pinning the ten commandments up on the wall, and yet . . . never communicating with you in any other way. They talk with one another but ignore you completely. You would be deeply troubled children wouldn’t you? “Why don’t they speak to us? Why do they ignore us day after day? What is wrong? What are they thinking?”
The God who created the world is not like that; he is not a mute God. More than hearing his voice daily speaking in the glories of creation and within our consciences God has addressed the world many, many times and in very different ways by his servants the prophets. Then there is more; he has spoken through his incarnate Son. The Lord Jesus has brought to us the exact word God gave him to deliver. But hear me, even more divine words have come through Christ’s apostles in their preaching, their gospels and letters. So we possess that word of God which was written down by Moses and the prophets of the Old Testament and by the apostles of the New Testament. It is here in the Bible, the word of God.
John Wesley was once overwhelmed with the privilege of having the word of God. He wrote, “I want to know one thing, the way to heaven . . . God himself has condescended to teach the way . . . He has written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price give me the book of God! I have it. Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be a man of one book . . . I sit down alone; only God is here. In his presence I open . . . I read his book; for this end, to find the way to heaven . . .” John Wesley was rejoicing to discover that the Creator had spoken and his words had been recorded for us in the Bible. This God has told us the way to heaven through Jesus Christ. This passage in Luke’s gospel before us confirms that Wesley is correct, as it affirms, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert” (v.2). Now what are the implications of this truth for ourselves?
THE TIME AT WHICH THE WORD OF GOD CAME TO JOHN.
This happened at a prescribed time, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar” (v.1), and that is generally agreed to be some time during the twelve months following August of that fifteenth year, and, depending on how you calculate the commencement of the reign of Tiberius, that would be either the year 26 or the year 28. We know that it was a time of peace and political stability so much so that Tiberius Caesar was confident enough to have left Rome for early retirement to the isle of Capri leaving the empire to be run by the despicable Sejanus. The ‘pax Romana’, the peace Rome had imposed on the world, was evidenced in lasting order imposed on the chaotic world of Mediterranean squabbles. Pirates no longer ruled the waves, and robbers on the highways were swiftly hung up crucified at crossroads as warnings to others foolish enough to steal from travelers. Attempts at rebellion in the Roman Empire were dealt with by the dispatch of some Roman legions, and the barbarians were kept outside the Empire.
A system of splendid highways linked the world together, and the phrase ‘all roads lead to Rome’ goes back to this period. There was a magnificent land and sea network which meant excellent speedy communication throughout the empire. Today we can drive along some of the straight Roman roads which were originally built by the legionnaires in England 2000 years ago. It is possible to trace the travels of the apostle Paul through Asia Minor by the apostle’s deliberate decision to follow the Roman road system.
There was also a common language. The Romans listed in our text all spoke Latin, and they were in control, but the language that united the empire was not Latin. It was Greek, and it had been so since the conquests of Alexander the Great. He had come from Macedonia, where his father Philip had been a powerful king before him. Alexander had pressed towards the east, first conquering the rest of Greece, then crossing the Hellespont into what we call Turkey, marching on into Palestine and finally moving even further east until he came to the very borders of India. All that great area was settled by the descendants of the armies and civil servants and traders of Alexander the Great. So the Greek language that had gone where the Greek armies and settlers went soon became the political and business language of every nation he had conquered. It is certain that Jesus himself had picked up Greek; we know that his disciples Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul as well as Jesus’ half brother James were all very fluent in Greek. They wrote excellent Greek. Someone as intelligent as Jesus would have had no difficulty in learning that language.So the time was much like today, peace in Europe, extraordinary communications, and English the world’s common language.
So it was in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar that the great event of our text happened. God did something brand new within the Roman empire, and something radically new was desperately needed. There was a spiritual vacuum in that civilization. The religions of the ancient world had run their course. They were focused on the gods and goddesses of the Greek and Roman pantheons, but practically and morally they were irrelevant except as fairy stories by this fifteenth year of Tiberius. The cult of emperor worship was half heartedly followed. Then, for the first time in the Roman Empire a new word from heaven appeared.
So the date that Doctor Luke announces here is the fifteenth year of Tiberius, and then Luke follows that up by telling us of these four lesser officials. They were the pagans who dominated the secular politics of the Holy Land (as far as you could separate ‘secular’ from ‘holy’ at that time) throughout Jesus’ ministry. First, the infamous Pontius Pilate who had just become the governor of Judea; second, the degenerate ‘King’ Herod the tetrarch of Galilee, who was to give orders for the murderous beheading of John because the dancing of Salome had thrilled him and she requested the Baptist’s head on a platter; third, Herod’s brother Philip, and he was the best of Herod’s family, a thoroughly decent man, and finally, Lysanias, a bit player.
Then Luke goes on and tells Theophilus something about the leadership of the Old Testament church at that time. We are told that it was under the leadership of Annas and Caiaphas. What is this? Two high priests? Where do you find any place for two high priests in the Old Testament? You don’t. The religious chaos of the land is evidenced in two names being given, not one. What had happened so disgracefully was this; Rome was the authority that had appointed Annas to be high priest twenty or so years earlier, and a decade later Rome had deposed him. What was Rome doing interfering in the leadership of the church? Chaos! Annas, though deposed, was still the unchallenged ‘godfather’ of Jewry. Can you believe that five of his sons, as well as one grandson, all followed him as high priests, one after another, and then his son-in-law followed them and he is the Caiaphas who is mentioned here. These two men, father-in-law and son-in-law, had the religious life of Judea in their pockets. It was sheer nepotism. They ran the Old Testament church like a business – just as if it belonged to them, and they were so powerful they could even intimidate Rome if they chose – you remember the pressure they brought to bear on Pilate to have Jesus crucified.
What a melancholy list of men. Except for Philip they were a bunch of rotters, and if the rulers of the world were evil men what must the people have been like? I tell you that this was the time when God spoke to John to begin his ministry as the forerunner and herald of Jesus. In this fifteenth year of Tiberius John received his commission to start preaching to the people.
2. THE MANNER IN WHICH THE WORD OF GOD CAME TO JOHN.
There was a certain day during the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar when the word of God came to John; it was not during the fourteenth year or earlier; it was not during the sixteenth year of Caesar’s reign or later. It was specifically a day in Tiberius’ fifteenth year in office. I am labouring the point but I want you to understand my emphasis; for example, I am not saying that divine words coming to John was a common enough experience for this young man. I’m saying that we’re not to understand that words of divine origin were coming to John all the time in the form of strong feelings and hunches and inward voices – right through his life. No. What is described in our text had not happened as John grew up. The young lad did not perforate conversations with his mother and father in their little home, with his eyes going glassy and then with a different voice chant something like, “I feel a word is coming in . . .” and pronounce the message, “Let’s . . . love . . . everybody.” No. There was nothing like that. That is science fiction. That is Hollywood. That is the stuff of séances. That did not happen. John was not a mystic.
Our text is saying that there was one never-to-be-forgotten occasion when the word of God first came to John, and it marked the beginning of his public ministry. Before he had ever preached he received a solemn living word from heaven. It was unmistakable; nothing like that had ever happened to him before, and that is the event that is recorded in our text and it took place during the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar. It was God speaking to him, and we are not to understand by that phrase that God was merely heightening the manner he speaks by conscience or in creation or in some unspecific inward way to everybody. No. This was a specific verbal revelation from God communicated personally to John. It was in a manner in which the word of God never came to any of the other men mentioned in our text, not to Caesar, not to Pontius Pilate, not to Philip, nor to Lysanias. They were famous men living in palaces, but not to them, and not to either of the two high priests in Jerusalem did God speak as he spoke to John, and in fact not to anyone else in all the world. Exclusively to this unknown man, John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, there in the desert, the word of God came.
That is the great claim of the Christian faith. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the Creator of the world, and he is not silent. He has spoken to the world by his servants the prophets and in these last days by his Son Jesus Christ, and we had better pay attention to what he says. Men and women are not left with perpetual questions. We do not live in darkness, always seeking but never coming to any understanding. God has spoken; let all the earth be silent. Do we know the contents of the actual word of God that came to John? Yes, we do. I will tell them to you now; it is not a secret. John took it out of his heart and mind, and he brought it out of the deserts, and he delivered it as God had given it to him, preaching it to the people and they heard the word of God that had first come to John. Then Luke later wrote it down here. It concerned their vital need of a baptism of repentance for the remission of their sins. God’s demands contradicted all the sins they got excited about and lived for.
This is what John said; I can read it to you from this second chapter of Luke in verses seven, eight and nine; this is the word that had come to him from God in the desert, and now you are going to hear the same word that originated in heaven; “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” You didn’t expect that did you? You’re shocked by that aren’t you? You expected a word from God to be something like, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your lives,” but instead of that there is this fearful divine indictment on sinners like you and me, people listening to John who had become as wicked as their leaders named here. John brought a warning from the throne of the universe that without good fruit of a repentant lifestyle they would be cut down by God and thrown into the fires of hell. Paul tells us that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness of men. This was heard in the message that came to John in the fifteenth year of Tiberius.
What privileges these sons of Abraham had enjoyed, a mighty Creator who had cared for them, spoken to them, delivered them from slavery in Egypt and from exile in Babylon. He had kept them alive and he had sent them prophets who winsomely brought them his free offers of salvation, “‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the LORD. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Is. 1:18). John stood before defiant Israel and preached an arousing word; an awakening word; a chilling, searching word accompanied by the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven. Knowing therefore the terrors of the Lord he persuaded men that they were sinners in the hands of an angry God, as are all you who have not repented of your sin and unbelief, who also need to cast yourselves on the mercy of God. God is commanding all men everywhere to turn from their sins to God. That was the word God brought to John in the wilderness to preach to his people to prepare them for the coming of the one who would bruise the serpent’s head. >From his mother’s womb John had been filled with the Holy Spirit of prophecy. He was simply waiting for the time when the great definitive word would come to him. Then the commission was given to him to get out of the deserts, his preparation was complete, and now he was to deliver his soul by speaking these words to the people. All this happened in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar. John received the word; John declared that word, and the time to favour Israel had finally come again.
3. THE SPIRIT THROUGH WHOM THE WORD OF GOD CAME TO JOHN AND THE APOSTLES.
In possessing a prophetic gift John was not unique. Other men had also been similarly filled with the Spirit of prophecy but for four hundred years the gift was silent. John was simply standing in solidarity with all the prophets who had been sent to Israel before him. Let me draw your attention to how the apostle Peter described this whole process of the word of God coming to men and women. You will find it in Peter’s second letter and in the last two verses of the first chapter; “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20&21). That is exactly what happened to John. He spoke from God, that is, he received a word from God, and he was carried along by the Spirit of God.
I met my latest grandson this week. I picked him up on Friday one day old and carried him along. When you pick up a baby and carry him along then you do that by your own power. The baby, Osian Huw Alsop, being picked up and borne along was absolutely limp, but alive and warm and snuffling. So when John spoke it was because God had acted and given him a message and also an enabling to speak it. John had received the word from God; he was passive and God was active bearing him along in declaring God’s word with the style and authority commensurate with it being a word from heaven. When all John’s intelligence and prayerfulness and physical stamina had been fully exhausted there was yet a power above and beyond all natural resources of his. God used every bit of John of course, all the influence of Zechariah, and Elizabeth his parents, and his knowledge of the Bible and history of his people, but the fulness of John’s own personality, and his education and gifts, were not enough to explain the striking message he preached or the impact it made on those who eagerly heard him. It was as if Jehovah himself were beseeching the nation through him. Yet it was no one but John the Baptist himself who was preaching, but he spoke as one to whom a word from God had been given, and with the lucidity and earnestness and accuracy and authority such a word demanded in proclamation.
This was typical of all the writers of the New Testament. The apostle Paul was very conscious that the Christian message he preached was not some original message thought up by him. He was aware that his gospel was a derived message, that he had ‘received’ it. “I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received,” he would say. The word had come to him from God. When he is summarising the gospel in I Corinthians 15:1ff. he says those words, “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures: and that he was buried and rose again the third day according to the scriptures.” When he spoke to the Galatians (1:11-12) he said: “I certify brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man, for I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.” A word from Jesus Christ had come to him. So Paul and the apostles were conscious that they are simply passing on something, an unoriginal message, that they were mere delivery boys, or heralds declaring a message that they have received from someone far greater than themselves, to whom they must answer for the stewardship of their message.
There is this great New Testament teaching about the Lordship of Christ, his incarnation and redemption. It explains the meaning of his sufferings, his resurrection from the grave. Paul says, “I simply received it from the Lord and I am handing it down in my preaching and in my letters.” It did not originate in the apostle. He did not get it from man, not even from other apostles. He went directly to Jehovah Jesus and he came from him with a specific message of good news. Like John, the apostle Paul also spent years in a wilderness but Paul had spent time there in the presence of the risen Christ. It was the same Lord who had spoken to him on the road to Damascus who there proceeded to clarify to the apostle eternal truths. Like Peter he has the same conviction of the origin of scripture saying in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All scripture is God-breathed,” that is, the expiration of God. This is the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles.
If you then could have inquired asking the Saviour how comprehensive is the inspiration of the Bible, Jesus would answer you, “to the jots and the tittles.” What we mean by inspiration is that God came in the exercise of a very special providence and he brought the word of God to these men and he supervised the writing of the whole of the Scriptures. The Bible is the Word that comes to men from God. It is not simply that God showed men something and let them write it down as they were pleased. He did not let them feel something numinous and inspirational, and then they were left to compose it in their own words. The inspiration is related directly to the writing.
You might protest, “But to err is human. We can’t have human activity without sin or error.” The issue is a different one. Isn’t Almighty God able so to superintend, control and overrule the operations of the human mind so as to ensure that men say exactly what God wants them to say, and to write precisely what God wants them to write? Is this an impossibility with God? He can make the universe and raise the dead but he cannot prepare a man in his providence so that the man inscribes what God wants? It is interesting in Revelation 10:4, where the apostle John is about to write down some words and God intervenes and says to him, “Write them not!” So God assisted these men as they used their distinctive personalities, the exercise of their faculties, minds, memories and emotions. God freely enabled them to use their experiences and even a number of biographical references. In all their writings God determined that they freely put down and recorded what transpired to be exactly he wanted them to say. The Lord worked all things after the counsel of his own will. He prevented them, as the foundation of the church for the next two thousand years, from laying a foundation of error. There was no destruction of their personalities. John the Baptist remained different from the apostle Paul and different again from Luke. We say very firmly that this was not dictation on God’s part, but there was an immediacy and an intimacy in their relationship to God, like a servant whose eyes are on the face of his master. The great comprehensive idea and the whole of this concept of divine inspiration through men is that every single Scripture is God-breathed. All the parts of the Bible say exactly what God intended them to say. The Scriptures are God’s infallible testimony to himself, and to us about himself to the end that we might be saved.
4. RESPONDING TO THE WORD OF GOD THAT CAME TO JOHN AND THE APOSTLES.
i] Let us not despair. When the word of God came to John they were dark days in the world and especially for the professing church. What were the prospects for the people of God? Things seemed hopeless under the iron grip of Caiaphas, and yet it was then that God had prepared a mighty deliverance. At that very season when Satan’s kingdom seemed to be triumphant a ‘little stone’ was moving in the deserts of Judea and soon it would grow and crush in pieces formal religion and pagan Rome and begin its journey of filling the whole world. The darkest hour of the day is often that which precedes the dawn.
ii] Let us not stop working for the Lord. Let us not plead the imperfections and disunity of a congregation, or the evil of the day, or the multitudes of our enemies as a reason for stopping working. “Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap” (Eccles. 11:4). You can always find an excuse for not evangelizing, not engaging in mission. There will always be one disgruntled brother who will say, “We must pray for more love and unity before we attempt anything like that. We are not ready spiritually for such outreach.” No! Let us work on and believe that help will come from heaven when it is most wanted. At a time when everything seemed in the hands of ungodly emperors and ignorant priests the time for the arrival of the Messiah Jesus Christ was being announced by John the Baptist his herald. What God has done once he can do again. Let us be heralds for his coming in blessing to our land.
iii] Let us love the word that has come from God to us. Our greatest difficulty in responding to the word that has come from God and is found in the Bible is not that there are some difficult passages in the Bible. The crucial problem is found in the coldness and indifference of our own hearts. We read the opening psalm in the book of Psalms and we meet there the blessed man. We are told that, “His delight is in the law of the Lord and in that law he meditates day and night.” Here is a man who really loves the Bible. Now that is a searching test of the Christianity of anyone, not only that we have the correct revealed doctrine of Scripture, and read it diligently every day, and sit under the best preaching that we can hear each Sunday, but more than all those things, that we actually love it, that we have fallen in love with the Bible. Now, is that our relationship to Scripture? Isn’t it true that sometimes our preference is for other literature, that the delight has shifted from divine oracles to some devotional book or biography.
One of the intriguing things is to hear what some people say they do for relaxation. Now when a person relaxes he does something he loves doing. Do you say, “I study the Bible because I have to, because it is food for my faith, it is part of my discipline, but to relax I do something else”? Then that whole element of delight has passed away and we have ceased turning to God’s Word for pleasure. When we want delight we go to something else; but we go to God’s Word for duty, discipline and information. Before we know where we are, we have ceased to delight in the law of the Lord.
I think increasingly we make some distinction between our religion and our affections. There are people who would never think of coming to a Christian conference for a holiday, who would never consider the prayer meeting as a night out. We have lost this commitment to the delights of the Word of God, the joy of our devotion. But the blessed man who is described for us at the beginning of the book of Psalms delights in the law of the Lord. His pleasure is religion. There is no dichotomy between his faith and his enjoyment. His chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him. That is his preferred occupation. When he has time you will find him reading the Bible and meditating on it. He is reflecting on the law of God. He loves the Bible where God speaks! Sometimes when he finishes reading it he will hug it to his chest as his greatest treasure. God’s infallible word can take his breath away. He is intrigued by it day by day, never growing weary of it, but increasingly struck by the evidences of its inspiration, the marvellous accuracy of every word, the complexity of so many of its statements, its stirring concepts, even its remarkable use of prepositions. He is moved by the details of its language and he is quite taken up by Scripture. Here is a man loving the Bible; he is enthused by Scripture. It is a miraculous book that we may yet handle and weigh. It is one of those tangible proofs that God exists, that God is. It is the great evidence for the reality of God. We worship the God who inspired this Book. So the Christian is in love with the Word of God.
We will echo Jesus’ words that Scripture is true – “Your word is truth.” But we will never stop there. Not only does every member of every cult believe that, the very devils believe that the Bible is the Word of God. Demons are orthodox enough when they choose. There are no modernist demons. They confess that the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God. I am saying that we must go beyond the knowledge of the devil – who can quote from Scripture – and love and delight in the Word of God. The devils never delight in the Word of God. But all God’s people are summoned to love this Word of God more and more, until they meet him whom they have met in its pages throughout their lives.
4th November 2005 GEOFF THOMAS