John is on the move. He is covering all the territory. John has a message for me. I need to radically change how I think and act (aka repent). Why? There is forgiveness of my missing God’s goal (aka sin). That is some really good news.
The promise is that I will see the salvation of God. That is beautiful and stunning. May it be so for all of us.
He [John the Baptizer] went into all the vicinity of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance [changing our mind] for the forgiveness of sins [missing God’s goal], as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
A voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight!
Every valley will be filled,
and every mountain and hill will be made low;
the crooked will become straight,
the rough ways smooth,
and everyone will see the salvation of God. | Luke 3:3-6 (CSB)
Resembling the Prophet Elijah in manner and dress, John came to the area near the Jordan River, preaching and baptizing. He announced the arrival of the kingdom of heaven and urged the people to repent. Centuries before, Israel had crossed the Jordan (a national baptism) to claim their Promised Land. Now God summoned them to turn from sin and enter His spiritual kingdom.
Keep in mind that John did much more than preach against sin; he also proclaimed the good news of the Messiah. The word preached gives us the English word evangelize (“to proclaim the Good News”). John introduced Jesus as the Lamb of God and told people to trust in Him. John was only the best man at the wedding: Jesus was the Bridegroom. John rejoiced at the opportunity of introducing people to the Savior, and then getting out of the way.
A unique feature about John’s ministry was baptism. Baptism was nothing new to the people, for the Jews baptized Gentile proselytes. But John baptized Jews, and this was unusual. Acts 19:1–5 explains that John’s baptism looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, while disciples of Jesus baptism looks back to the finished work of the Messiah.
But there was something even beyond John’s baptism, and that was the baptism that the Messiah would administer. He would baptize believers with the Holy Spirit, and this began at Pentecost. Today, the moment a sinner trusts the Messiah, he or she is baptized by the Spirit into the body of the Messiah.
What is the “baptism of fire”? It does not refer to the “tongues of fire” at Pentecost, for tongues over a person’s head could hardly be called a “baptism.” John’s use of the symbol of “fire” indicates that he is talking about judgment and not blessing. In A.D. 70 the nation experienced a baptism of fire when Titus and the Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem and scattered the people. All unbelievers will experience a baptism of judgment in the lake of fire.
John’s going “into all the region around the Jordan” makes his preaching adumbrate both Jesus’ even wider preaching throughout Israel and the worldwide preaching of the gospel in Luke’s book of Acts.
“The baptism of repentance” that John preaches foreshadows baptism in the name of Jesus, also in the book of Acts. John preaches a baptism of repentance in the sense that he calls on people to submit to this baptism.
It has to do with repentance in the sense that it represents outwardly the inward change of mind that the word “repentance” means. A person repents by turning negative toward his or her sinful conduct. Such a turning brings forgiveness of sins, that is, a sending away of sins from the sinner. They’re no longer attached to the sinner, who therefore faces no punishment for them.
John’s preaching of this baptism agrees with “the words of Isaiah the prophet” and therefore carries out God’s plan as revealed in those words. That Isaiah’s words are written “in a book” makes them checkable and therefore contributory to certainty. For his voice to be heard in the wilderness, John has to “cry out.” Otherwise people won’t hear him.
Preparing the way of the Lord by straightening, leveling (a combination of filling ravines and lowering mountains and hills), and smoothing out his paths is a figure of speech for repentance. The filling of “every ravine” and the lowering of “every mountain and hill” means that people should repent of every sin of theirs. No exceptions!
The future tense of the “shall be”-verbs carries forward the commanding tone of “Make his paths straight” (compare other commands in the future tense, such as “Thou shalt not kill”). These commands lead then to a happily predictive future tense in “all flesh will see God’s salvation.”
“All flesh” means all humanity in their frailty, mortality, and need of salvation; for at death their flesh returns to dust and only their bones remain. “All flesh” means that God makes salvation available for everybody who repents, Jew and Gentile alike.
To “see God’s salvation” is to experience it. That it’s “God’s salvation” means that “the Master” whose way is prepared by repentance is God, not Jesus. But it will turn out that God is coming to bring salvation in the person of his Son and agent, Jesus.
And he went into all the region around the Jordan [River] preaching a baptism of changing our mind [repentance] for the forgiveness of missing God’s goal [sins], 4 as it’s written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Master. Make his paths straight. 5 Every ravine shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be lowered, and the crooked shall be [made] straight, and the rough [shall be made] smooth. 6 And all flesh will see God’s salvation [Isaiah 40:3–5].’”
Christian Standard Bible. (2017). (Lk 3:3–6). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
Gundry, R. H. (2010). Commentary on the New Testament: Verse-by-Verse Explanations with a Literal Translation (pp. 234–237). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, pp. 180–181). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.