As we begin chapter three of Luke’s Gospel, the stage is almost set for Jesus to begin his ministry (as he will do in chapter four). Only two characters remain to be introduced, or reintroduced, before Luke can introduce Jesus’ mission. The first is Jesus’ most important advocate, John the Baptist. The second is his most significant opponent, Satan.
Each of our four canonical gospels suggests that we can only understand Jesus by understanding John the Baptist. The description of his ministry shifts somewhat from gospel to gospel. In each, the baptizer fulfills two important functions. He connects Jesus to God’s history with Israel, as recorded in the Old Testament, and he bears witness to Jesus’ significance as representative of God or of God’s reign.
Luke’s gospel is concerned with God’s activity in all of human history. Luke stresses John’s (and Jesus’) chronology in relationship to emperors, governors, and high priests. He is eager to tie John’s words to the prophecy found in the Book of Isaiah.
John the Baptist warns that genealogy is no guarantee of salvation. Claiming Abraham as their father is not a sufficient response to God’s in-breaking power. John demands repentance and amendment of life. The amendment of life is spelled out more practically—perhaps more modestly—in Luke than in Mark and Matthew. There are concrete actions that people can take in the context of the lives they now live. For example: tax collectors are not instructed to give up tax collecting, but to do their job fairly.
Thus, what counts is not just repentance but the fruits of repentance; what do people do with the penitence they profess?
It is easy to think of Luke as presenting a contrast between the harsh eschatological words of John the Baptist and the comforting words of Jesus, but Luke alone reports that John and Jesus are cousins. They are also related in word as well as in blood. The strong message of repentance and judgment that we find in John will find its own echoes and emphases in Jesus’ own preaching. “His winnowing fork is in his hand” (Luke 3:17).
When Luke portrays John baptizing Jesus he highlights again the lines of continuity between the two. When the voice comes from heaven saying to Jesus: “You are my son” (see Isaiah 42:1; Psalms 2:7), we see an even stronger link, between Jesus and the one he calls Father.
John prepares for Jesus’ mission; Satan seeks to thwart it. The Holy Spirit is a major actor both in the Gospel of Luke and in its literary partner: the Book of Acts. The Spirit, which descends on Jesus at his baptism, now drives him into the wilderness, where Jesus and the Spirit do battle against another spiritual force—Satan.
The three tests Jesus faces in the wilderness are the same as the three he faces in Matt 4:1-11, though the order of the tests is different. In each case, Jesus outfoxes Satan by proving to be a better interpreter of Scripture. More deeply, Jesus outlasts Satan by proving his own fidelity to his mission, his call.
Now the prologue is over. Jesus’ work begins (4:14). As Luke explicitly uses the Book of Isaiah to describe John the Baptist’s ministry, Jesus explicitly uses the Book of Isaiah to inaugurate his own ministry. Jesus is both the greatest of prophets and more than a prophet.
The continuity is evident when Jesus returns to his hometown, his home synagogue, and familiar scripture. The newness is evident when Jesus uses Scripture as a description of himself and his own mission. Sharon Ringe writes that the text Jesus quotes originally referred to the Jubilee justice that God would work for Israel. Now, astonishingly, Jesus claims that these jubilee promises of God have already come to pass—in him. As in his baptism, temptation, and return to Nazareth, all this is the work of God’s Spirit.
There is continuity between the Isaiah passage Jesus reads and the hymn Mary sings in Luke 1. In Luke’s Gospel, God is interested not only in individual forgiveness but historical, political, social, and economic redemption.
The people’s opposition now stands in for Satan’s tests. For the rest of the Gospel we will see Satan’s work in the opposition Jesus faces from other humans. That opposition reaches its peak in the crucifixion. When Luke tells us that Jesus walks right through the crowd, he may be hinting that one day Jesus will walk right through death to Resurrection.
Sharon Ringe suggests that the passage that follows the synagogue scene can be titled: “The Good News Enacted: Luke 4:31-44.” We can say that the rest of chapter four of Luke’s Gospel and all of chapter five represent the good news enacted. Like the classical prophets of 1 and 2 Kings, Jesus works out the redemption he declares.
We also see Jesus recruiting, commissioning for the good news, when he starts with Peter and calls other to follow him. (In Acts, these apostles, too, will enact the gospel they declare). With the healing of the paralyzed man in Luke 5:17-26 and the calling of a tax collector in Luke 5:27-31, we learn that the gospel is a gospel of forgiveness. Those whom Jesus forgives, he often also calls to be servants of that same good news.