The Beginning

This lesson reviews the section in Luke that provides information on John the Baptist, Jesus' early life and the beginning of His ministry in Galilee.
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In the previous chapter I listed the outline we will use to study Luke's gospel.

  1. The Beginning – 1:1-3:38
  2. Jesus in Galilee – 4:1-9:50
  3. Jesus Facing Jerusalem – 9:51-18:30
  4. Jesus Entering Jerusalem – 18:31-21:38
  5. The Consummation – 22:1-24:53

The Beginning — 1:1-3:38

Introduction – 1:1-4

Luke's gospel is unique in that it was originally written for an audience of one, a man named Theophilus.

1Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, 2just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; 4so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.
- Luke 1:1-4

Luke begins by explaining why, how and to whom he has written this gospel.


Many others have taken it upon themselves to do this same thing (recount the life, death and resurrection of Jesus). Some were Apostles (Matthew and John) while others were simply writing and commenting on the times. Luke undertakes a similar mission.


He is not an eyewitness as are the Apostles, but he has access to the writings of the eyewitnesses, and has been a co-worker with an Apostle (Paul) and one who was a disciple of Peter (Mark). Luke is an educated man and his training has enabled him to research, organize and select material that will lay out his gospel record in a clear and concise manner. He does not say this himself, but with time the early church acknowledged that his work was guided by the Holy Spirit and thus added to the canon (body of accepted inspired writings) of the New Testament.


Theophilus is only mentioned here and in Luke's other book, Acts. He was a Gentile who was a high official or very wealthy since he is addressed with the title "most excellent." Luke's book is an attempt to provide confirming information to what this man already knew about Christianity. Many think that Theophilus was eventually converted because Luke addresses him using only his name, no title, in the book of Acts, something which would not have been proper had he not become a Christian.

The Birth of John the Baptist – 1:5-80

Luke, as he has stated in his introduction, begins his account with John the Baptist who serves as both an embodiment and bridge of all that came before and up to the birth of Christ:

  • He lived under the Law/Old Testament.
  • He was in the likeness of Elijah, one of the great Old Testament prophets (Mark 9:13 - According to Jesus).
  • He himself was a prophet (Matthew 11:9).
  • His life and ministry was the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy concerning the coming of the Messiah.
A voice is calling,
"Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness;
Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.
- Isaiah 40:3
19This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" 20And he confessed and did not deny, but confessed, "I am not the Christ." 21They asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" And he said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" And he answered, "No." 22Then they said to him, "Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?" 23He said, "I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,' as Isaiah the prophet said."
- John 1:19-23

It is logical, therefore, that Luke begins his narrative with John who summarized all of what came before, and was chosen by God to introduce Christ to the world.

5In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. 7But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years.
- Luke 1:5-7

A feature of Luke's writing is his historical precision. He does not want his account seen as some kind of fable or mystic tale. He is careful to ground his characters in historical accuracy and proper cultural context. For example, the "days of Herod King of Judea" refer to an exact time period in history. Zacharias is one who can be traced to a particular Jewish tribe, place and time. His role and function as priest is accurately described according to the law and custom of that era. That they were elderly and childless sets the stage for God's entry into their lives in a miraculous way.

In verses 8-80 the birth of John the Baptist is described, again in an ordered and detailed way:

Verses 8-25: John's father, Zacharias, is visited by an angel who announces that he and his elderly wife will have a son who would serve to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. A doubting Zacharias is struck dumb by the angel as a sign of his appearance to the elderly priest. A short while after his service in the temple and return home Elizabeth, his wife, announces her pregnancy.

Verses 26-56: Luke shifts the scene to Mary and the announcement she receives from the same angel, Gabriel, that she also is pregnant (with Jesus). Her condition, however, is truly miraculous because her conception is produced directly by God without human interaction. Luke then describes her trip to her cousin Elizabeth's home to help with her pregnancy. Luke's detailed description of Mary's interaction with the angel and her cousin Elizabeth suggests that his source was Mary herself. She was still alive after Jesus' death and ascension into heaven. Luke even mentions Mary's presence in the upper room with the Apostles and other disciples on the day leading up to Pentecost Sunday (Acts 1:13). And so, in a few verses Luke sets up the time, characters and God's presence leading up to the births of both John and Jesus.

Verses 57-80: Luke provides detailed information concerning John's birth. Elizabeth gave birth naturally at the appointed time. The custom was to circumcise and name the child on the eighth day after his birth. Luke mentions the circumcision (nothing special since all male Jews were circumcised) because it was the occasion when two other unusual things occurred:

1. He is named John

59And it happened that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to call him Zacharias, after his father. 60But his mother answered and said, "No indeed; but he shall be called John." 61And they said to her, "There is no one among your relatives who is called by that name." 62And they made signs to his father, as to what he wanted him called. 63And he asked for a tablet and wrote as follows, "His name is John." And they were all astonished. 64And at once his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he began to speak in praise of God. 65Fear came on all those living around them; and all these matters were being talked about in all the hill country of Judea. 66All who heard them kept them in mind, saying, "What then will this child turn out to be?" For the hand of the Lord was certainly with him.
- Luke 1:59-66

It was customary to name a male child after its father. In this case the angel had instructed Zacharias to name him John (which meant "the Lord has been gracious" in Hebrew), and in some way had made this known to Elizabeth. Against the protests of family and friends she insists on the name John. Since it was the father who named the child (and Elizabeth spoke for Zacharias who was struck dumb by the angel) the family appeals to him, thinking that this was her idea. He confirms the name John and immediately receives back his voice.

2. Zacharias Prophesizes

After many months of pent-up emotion, Zacharias bursts forth in a psalm of praise and prophecy for God and the ministry He has given this child to perform in the future.

76"And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
For you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways;
77To give to His people the knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins,
- Luke 1:76-77

Luke reports that the people were in fear (verse 65) seeing the hand of God working so powerfully and clearly among them. It had been 400 years since a prophet was among the Jewish people so this was a completely new and frightening experience for them. Luke closes this section by summarizing John's growth and development in a few words, saying that he was strong in the Spirit and lived in the desert awaiting his call to ministry.

The Birth of Jesus – 2:1-52

Mark and John do not provide any information about Jesus' birth. Matthew details how Mary conceived miraculously and describes Joseph's initial reaction and subsequent acceptance of this after being told in a dream that the child she bore was of God and he was to go ahead and take Mary as his wife. Luke provides additional information that clearly fixes the historical time-frame for Jesus' birth (Caesar Augustus was Emperor of Rome, Quirinias was Governor of Syria). The Emperor declared a census, something new at the time and to be repeated every 14 years for two centuries (Lenski, p.116).

Luke provides this information to explain why Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem and not in Nazareth where His parents lived. This became an issue later on when the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus because they assumed He was born in the city of Nazareth, His parents' home, and not in Bethlehem where the prophets said the Messiah would come from (John 7:50-52).

Jesus' birth, like John's, is accompanied by supernatural phenomena and religious ritual.

  1. John was born of aged parents and an angel appeared to his father. Matthew mentions the star guiding the Magi for Jesus' birth. Luke describes the appearance of the angel guiding the shepherds to Jesus and the heavenly host of angels singing praises.
  2. John was circumcised and named, and this was followed by a prophecy uttered by his father as his speech was returned to him. Jesus was also circumcised at the temple (Bethlehem being about four miles from Jerusalem) on the eighth day. Luke adds that not one but two prophecies were made about Jesus: first by Simeon then Anna about Jesus' future ministry. Whereas Zacharias clearly mentions John as the one who will be the forerunner of the Messiah, preparing His way; the two prophets in Jesus' case declare Him (an eight day old baby at the time) to be the Messiah sent by God to save the people.
26And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ. 27And he came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to carry out for Him the custom of the Law, 28then he took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said,
29"Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, According to Your word;
30For my eyes have seen Your salvation,
31Which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32A Light of revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Your people Israel." [...]
38At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
- Luke 2:26-32;38

Luke leaves out Matthew's information about the family's time in Egypt and fast-forwards twelve or so years to describe the only incident recorded concerning Jesus' youth, His visit to the temple at the age of 12 (verses 41-52). This was a yearly trip that demonstrated the piety and faithfulness of the family making this 130 mile roundtrip on foot each year for the Passover feast. Luke explains that Jesus' parents lose track of Him on the return to Nazareth. They spend three days looking for Him and finally find Jesus in the temple area with the teachers who were amazed at His understanding and questions concerning the Law. Luke provides this story of young Jesus (three days lost and then found) as a preview of His public ministry (teaching and preaching) and His ultimate goal (death, three days buried, resurrection).

John's Ministry Begins – 3:1-20

1Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, 2in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness.
- Luke 3:1-2

Again, Luke makes an exact historical time fix for the things that he will relate concerning John's ministry. John is true to his calling echoing Zacharias' prophecy concerning his task of preparing the way for the One to come.

76"And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
For you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways;
77To give to His people the knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins,
- Luke 1:76-77
4as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
"The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
'Make ready the way of the Lord,
Make His paths straight. [...]
6And all flesh will see the salvation of God.'"
- Luke 3:4,6

Luke provides a good summary of John's ministry that includes most of what Matthew, Mark and John have recorded but leaves out the details of his eventual execution at the hands of Herod (only Matthew describes this).

His preaching announced that the time for the Messiah was near and the people had to prepare for it by purifying themselves through repentance and baptism. The idea of purifying oneself in preparation to come before God was familiar to Jews. Priests did it before ministering at the temple (Leviticus 8:1-6) and people continually did it if they were ceremonially unclean (i.e. touched a dead body, Numbers 19:11). John's preaching was powerful because it condemned the entire nation and called on all, high and low, to prepare.

7So he began saying to the crowds who were going out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father,' for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. 9Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
- Luke 3:7-9

Luke provides not only the high themes of John's preaching (the coming Messiah, all must prepare, He will baptize with the Spirit), he also provides the details of John's preaching to individuals:

10And the crowds were questioning him, saying, "Then what shall we do?" 11And he would answer and say to them, "The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise." 12And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" 13And he said to them, "Collect no more than what you have been ordered to." 14Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, "And what about us, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages."
- Luke 3:10-14

Luke also describes the excitement of the people and their curiosity whether John was himself the Messiah. This gave him the opportunity to further describe and contrast each of their work. John was there to prepare the way. The Messiah, however, would both bless (baptize with the Spirit) and bring judgment on the entire nation.

16John answered and said to them all, "As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
- Luke 3:16-17

Luke closes out his summary of John's ministry by briefly mentioning that Herod (because John had admonished the king for his many sins, including the stealing of his brother's wife) had him imprisoned. We only hear of John later (Luke 7:18) when, from prison, he sends some of his disciples to question Jesus. John believed that when the Messiah came, the judgment on the people would also be at hand. As Jesus' ministry grew, John saw no accompanying judgment on the nation and sent some of his own disciples to question if Jesus was truly the Messiah. We know that the judgment on the nation did eventually come, but only several years after John's death when the Roman army destroyed the city of Jerusalem, its magnificent temple and killed most of the people there (70 AD). He had correctly prophesied the judgment to come but was mistaken about the timing of this event.

After closing out the information about John's ministry, Luke provides a flashback scene to introduce a new section of his narrative, the ministry of Jesus.

Jesus' Ministry Begins – 3:21-38

21Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized, and while He was praying, heaven was opened, 2and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, "You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased."
- Luke 3:21-22

Luke gives a brief description of this event and focuses our attention on the fact that Jesus:

  1. Is the divine Son of God.
  2. His ministry is pleasing and from God.
  3. Is the One John spoke of.

As he has done for the Baptist, Luke now establishes Jesus' ancestry, but in a more complete way tracing it to Adam and not only back one generation as was the case for John. He also fixes Jesus' age at about 30 years which, as is his style, gives us another historical marker to view his gospel.


This first section of Luke's gospel does not contain specific teachings by John or Jesus for those who would be reading Luke's account. However, there are lessons that we can draw from this preliminary information:

Christianity is Based in History

Unlike most Eastern religions (i.e. Hinduism, Buddhism) and native or primitive religions (i.e. Native American, Voodoo) Christianity has a fixed historical starting point and is populated with people (for and against) that can be traced through history. This makes it easy to attack because the times, people and teachings are set targets that can be seen, studied and criticized. The advantage, however, is that we can more easily study, learn and believe information about people and historical facts that are permanently established.

Luke's Record is Clear and Exact

As far as teaching is concerned, Luke and Acts are great educational texts. There is little theological speculation or examination of philosophical ideas. Also, Luke does not use theological imagery as does John, or Jewish religious history and practice as does Matthew. Luke is interested in telling first the story of Jesus and then the story of the establishment and development of His church after His ascension.

Luke's approach provides us with two basic lessons:

  1. When sharing our faith we should begin by telling our own story in simple objective terms (i.e. I did this, went there, was baptized here...)
  2. When teaching someone else we should likewise begin by sharing the simple story of the gospel (as Luke does) and not debate complicated or disputed points of doctrine.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you defend the inspiration of Luke's gospel since he was not a chosen Apostle?
  2. In your opinion, why was it necessary to have a person and ministry like John the Baptist?
  3. Using no more than 50 words, write out a summary of a typical sermon that John the Baptist would preach to people in today's society.
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